New London Architecture

Beauty and engagement – the new planning

Monday 02 August 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Government is aiming to put ‘beauty’ and engagement with the community at the heart of changes it is seeking to make to the planning system – and is testing its new National Model Design Code in 14 local authorities including London and Portsmouth.

The points emerged last week from David Waterhouse of MHCLG at an NLA update he provided from the heart of the administration into planning reforms that also include the ‘really big step change’ of ‘making beauty and placemaking the strategic objective of the planning system’.
Waterhouse said that the new national code, along with the NPPF – taking force immediately – and launch of Office for Place represented ‘a fantastic opportunity to really brigade all of these different elements to a really comprehensive package’. He was speaking following the launch of the Office for Place and unveiling of its chairman Nicholas Boys Smith by secretary of state Robert Jenrick, at which the latter spoke about the need to fight for good quality design and beauty without prescribing a style and criticised the system for the way it fails to engage the public. 

Waterhouse showed examples of good quality design from across the country and advice on application of design coding – flexibly, as a guide and according to local circumstances – saying that government was keen to ‘celebrate the good’. And he revealed that MCHLG is testing the design code in 14 local authorities, across a diverse range of contexts, from rural, to new town and city centre regeneration areas.

Others on the call such as David Joyce of Haringey Council applauded the stronger wording he hoped would allow the authority to refuse poor quality design. But we need to move from a world where funding is available for ‘reactive planning’ to ‘real’, he added, questioning too how the ‘incongruous’ permitted development messages fit into government’s new vision, and pleading for councils to be given more resources and tools to deliver the new agenda. 

Sowyma Parthasarathy of Arup said that ‘beauty’ could be a good move and welcomed the notion of placemaking seemingly being back on the agenda, ‘I think it's quite right at this stage to put beauty and inclusive placemaking, seen in a holistic way, as a priority agenda back into the planning process’, she said. Perhaps the design code should be written for the building materials industry too, she suggested. Anna Sinnott of BDP suggested caution was needed, and that other uses beyond housing should also be part of the picture. ‘I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the use of the word “beauty”, which, in my opinion doesn't necessarily mean well-designed places’, she said. ‘It’s quite a superficial approach. The saying ‘beauty is only skin-deep’ comes to mind‘.

Waterhouse was clear, however, about moves towards greater digitisation of the planning system leading to more and better engagement and training too, amidst what he felt were positive moves. ‘I've been in the planning, design, urban regeneration world for about 15 years and I don't think I've ever known a moment when we've had all of these things align, and come together’, he said. ‘Local communities are absolutely key’.
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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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