Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Design Council

1. Introduction

1.1 This paper sets out the Design Council’s response to the CLG Select Committee inquiry on the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Before addressing the specific questions asked by the Committee, we have set out the Design Council’s role and experience in this area.

1.2 The Design Council is the UK’s national strategic body and government advisor for design, architecture and public space. We place good design at the heart of social and economic renewal and provide evidence to demonstrate how design can help build stronger communities and economies. In April 2011, the Design Council became an independent charity. At the same time, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) became part of the Design Council.

1.3 CABE succeeded the Royal Fine Art Commission and was established in 1999. Over the last eleven years CABE strengthened capacity and offered expert advice on planning policy to ensure that sustainable, well-designed places are secured through the planning system.

1.4 As part of the Design Council, Design Council CABE (DC CABE) continues to champion well-designed buildings and public space, providing practical expert advice. DC CABE works directly with communities, planners, designers, clients and architects offering them guidance on projects that will shape all our lives.

2. Summary

2.1 The Design Council supports the principle of a single consolidated NPPF. This is a fundamental step towards the democratisation of the planning system. As a shorter document the NPPF will enable local people to read and understand planning policy and therefore take a more active role in contributing to the creation of neighbourhood and local plans. However, in the distillation of the existing planning policy statements and guidance notes there is a danger that some of the strategic policies which are a fundamental part of delivering sustainable development have not been fully addressed.

2.2 Creating a system which is more accessible to the public is crucial to ensuring the success of the planning reforms. This makes creating appropriate, local, checks and balances a vital component of the system. The Design Council welcomes the inclusion of Design Review as a mechanism by which local authorities can ensure good quality outcomes (see paragraph 3.7). Design Review, and other forms of design support can enable local authorities, communities and developers to work together to create new schemes which have wide support with long-term benefits. The Design Review process is also a useful methodology for assessing a scheme’s approach to sustainability and inclusion issues, particularly for complex schemes that require specialist expertise.

2.3 The Design Council welcomes the recognition that good design is “a key element in achieving sustainable development”. But this could be strengthened within the definition of sustainable development to include a “good design process is the methodology by which economic, social and environmental issues are reconciled”. This would signal both a commitment to achieving good quality development, as well as helping to support the practical delivery of well-designed schemes within the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

2.4 An efficient planning system and good spatial planning are essential to achieving high quality places that can deliver sustainable economic growth. It is therefore essential that the NPPF ask local authorities to set out the creation of a “positive, long-term vision for a place” as a strategic priority in their Local Plans.

2.5 Well-designed places create both the physical and social conditions for sustainable economic growth. Designing places where people choose to live and work, companies choose to locate and which are resilient to environmental and economic change should be at the heart of the planning system. In particular there is a need to ensure that green infrastructure (see paragraph 4.7) is fully embedded within the roles and responsibilities of the local plan in order to ensure that places are more resilient to climate change impacts.

2.6 Inclusive design, which ensures that everyone has equitable access to homes, jobs and amenities, is an inseparable component of good design. Far from being a niche issue, this is about ensuring access for all, and it is therefore imperative that this be made manifest in our planning policies. In light of our ageing population, and increased diversity, it is critical that local plans address the access needs of residents. One way of achieving this through the NPPF is by amending the core priorities of local plans to include “achieving good inclusive design”.

3. Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

3.1 The Design Council welcomes the NPPF’s commitment to a “genuinely” plan-led approach and the acknowledgement that “local plans should address the spatial implications of economic, social and environmental change”.

3.2 A good plan-led system delivers pro-active developments of sufficient quality that bring wider benefits to the community and local economy. Planning has a co-ordinating, facilitating role in place making. There is a danger that the current focus on short-term economic growth could hinder the delivery of positive, well-designed places.

3.3 Local Plans should be based on a clear understanding of place that has a vision of the future. This process is needed to create high quality sustainable places rather than a limited land-use, target-led approach. It is therefore essential that the NPPF asks that Local Authorities and Local Plans set out the creation of a “positive, long-term vision for a place” as a strategic priority.

3.4 The draft NPPF stipulates that “up-to-date” Local Plans, ie Local Plans which are consistent with this Framework must be in place as soon as practical. The Design Council believes it is essential that local authorities are properly resourced in order to effectively adopt the new planning system. Where necessary local authorities should have access to independent expert support in order to update/develop their Local Plan.

3.5 Local Plans need to tell the story of the place with a clear vision for the future and provide a document that communities can relate to and understand. Design Council core strategy workshops with local authorities have shown that local authorities often have the knowledge and skill to develop a spatial strategy but don’t always communicate this spatial thinking into their emerging core strategy. In our experience, too many core strategies focus on individual themes (such as housing and transport) rather than integrating these themes into a spatial approach. The Local Plan offers a huge opportunity for planners (and subsequently communities through Neighbourhood Plans) to be strategists securing the future of quality, prosperous places.

3.6 Because the NPPF is designed to be taken as a whole it is important to ensure that the policies are clear and succinct to provide clarity to planning officers, committees and the public. At present some policies are captured inappropriately, for example, it would be beneficial to front-load the “Sustainable Communities” chapter as part of the “Planning for People” section. In addition, the “Design” and “Open Space” (currently a sub-section of Sustainable Communities’) and “Green Belt” chapters would be more appropriately placed in the “Planning for Places” section.

3.7 The Design Council welcomes the recognition that local authorities should have design review arrangements in place to ensure high standards of design. We believe these arrangements should be both independent and impartial and follow the industry-led best practice guidance “Principles and Practice”. The Design Council also support the referral where appropriate of major projects to national design review (currently offered by Design Council CABE). By bringing Design Review into planning policy in this way it is even more important that the advice be of good quality to enable and support decision makers at a local level. We would recommend that the NPPF be amended to include the importance of having “independent and interdisciplinary” Design Review panels.

3.8 The NPPF, and indeed the ministerial forward, recognises the vital role that design can play in ensuring sustainable development, however there is a danger that we will lose ground in planners’ confidence to reject poor schemes because of the Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development. In 2000, Planning Policy Statement 1 created a positive test for the quality of development stating that developments should improve the area and the way it functions.

3.9 While the NPPF is strong on design, it moves away from a policy which gave local authorities confidence to refuse permission to poorly designed schemes. The NPPF’s new wording that “permission should be refused for development of obviously poor design” is a weakening of the PPS1 stance on design, and could be strengthened simply by the removal of the word “obviously”.

4. Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

4.1 The Design Council welcomes the use of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. In particular the notion of intergenerational equity is key if we are to ensure that developments that are taken forward are good for the long-term and do not just meet short term priorities.

4.2 The Design Council welcomes the emphasis on good design in paragraph 18 recognising that developers need to ensure that their projects are of “of good design and appropriately located”. This goes some way to ensuring that schemes actively contribute to an area.

4.3 A good design process is central to achieving sustainable development—it should be the means by which the social, economic and environmental objectives are reconciled. Therefore we would recommend that this be included within the definition of sustainable development to ensure that there is a recognition that sustainable development is synonymous with good design and therefore good quality development. This would also be in keeping with the 2008 Planning Act which linked sustainable development and good design.

4.4 The primary objective of development management according to the draft NPPF is the delivery of sustainable development, not to hinder or prevent development. Though the NPPF states that developments are sustainable if they are in accordance with the policies taken as a whole, there is pressure on local authorities to approve developments unless they cause significant and demonstrable harm. Much will rest on the definition of “significant” and “demonstrable” in this context. There is a danger that decisions to decline schemes will be taken to appeal, or judicial review on this basis which would slow the system.

4.5 From our past work with local authorities both on core strategies and climate change strategies it is clear that many struggle with integrating these policy areas. The NPPF makes it clear that local plans must have regard to climate change mitigation and adaptation when drawing up their plans, but some will require direct support in achieving this objective.

4.6 Green Infrastructure, by which we mean networks of green spaces, are a valuable resource in both climate change adaptation and mitigation, as the Environmental Audit Committee recognised in their 2010 report Adapting to Climate Change. The NPPF recognises “open land” can perform many functions (such as for wildlife, recreation, flood risk mitigation, carbon storage, or food production). This is welcome, however there is no requirement for green infrastructure to be assessed or managed in the local plan or through the duty to cooperate.

4.7 We would therefore recommend that a green infrastructure assessment be undertaken as part of the local planning process. This would link to the requirement for planning policies to “identify specific needs and quantitative deficits or surpluses of open space, sports and recreational facilities in the local area” (para 128), but would go beyond this to create a plan for managing green infrastructure as part of the delivery of eco-system services identified in the Natural Environment White Paper (Defra 2011). The appropriate place to build this into the NPPF would be in paragraph 30 when setting out the evidence base for requirements for economic and housing growth.

5. Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

5.1 The draft NPPF does not successfully emphasise the secondary benefits that a good planning process can deliver to communities and businesses alike. A good local plan integrates the wider public policy agenda bringing together the key partners to plan/deliver the long-term strategy for a successful, sustainable places.

5.2 The NPPF should set “high quality inclusive design” as a core planning principle, possibly as part of the setting out a vision for a place.

5.3 To reflect a “genuinely plan-led approach” the NPPF terminology should be altered. For example the NPPF refers to “land-use principles” (paragraph 19) whereas a spatial, plan-led approach should be emphasised.

6. Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across government departments?

6.1 The NPPF makes it clear that local plans must have regard to major infrastructure (covered by the national planning policy statements). However, much of this will be dependent on working at a strategic level across local authority boundaries (see below on Duty to Cooperate). It is essential that national policy statements are as specific as possible in terms of spatial location.

7. Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient evidence base for larger-than-local strategic planning?

7.1 Strategic planning has an important role to play in addressing challenges that exist across spatial scales, such as national and local infrastructure, climate change, housing, waste and minerals. There needs to be an integrated response to these challenges that have strong spatial expression when dealing with the provisions of economic, social and environmental infrastructure.

7.2 In the Design Council’s experience, planning functions are needed at the larger than local level because of the need to develop places in a sustainable way and meet not just the local, but national and global priorities, such as addressing climate change, promoting economic growth and delivering affordable housing.

7.3 The duty to cooperate is a real opportunity for local authorities to work together to address strategic issues which cut across their boundaries. Although we welcome the approach, it is unclear if the draft NPPF and the duty to cooperate will create a sufficient framework for cooperation and the Design Council believes there is a considerable risk to delivery if cooperation cannot be achieved.

7.4 The creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as locally owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses is encouraging however; we see this as just one way of encouraging cross boundary working. Where local authorities are not part of an LEP or indeed where LEPs do not have planning powers these other means for cross boundary collaboration will be key.

7.5 The Design Council has worked with many of the cross boundary organisations set up to tackle large scale challenges. Our experience of these suggests that appropriate cooperation can also be achieved in a number of ways:

By the collaboration of local authorities to write joint plans. This has been done in some areas already through joint core strategies. Local authorities could also collaborate and produce the higher level plan, but still produce their own local pla. A good example of this is the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA).

Cross boundary decision making could also be achieved through the aligning of local plans to ensure strategic objectives are met across wider areas and places are not forced into competition without having to share a specific plan, such as the Greater Nottingham Aligned Core Strategies.

7.6 Careful consideration needs to be given to how local authorities will cooperate cross boundary where there no LEP has been formed. Wherever these functions sit there needs to be a consistent approach. The draft NPPF does not identify how local planning authorities will have to demonstrate evidence of successful collaborated when submitting their local plans.

7.7 CABE published guidance on Large Scale Urban Design for local decision makers seeking to address issues which cross governance boundaries. In particular it:

Reinforces the rationale for adopting a new, place-focused approach to cross-boundary planning and delivering the transformation of places in England and how it can be done.

Defines methodology for the preparation of large scale spatial frameworks and strategies (through research, work with expert panel and pilot projects) including the publication of a practical guide.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011