Chief planner Joanna Averley has emphasised the role design will play in a ‘reset’ of the planning system, with a message on quality from ‘the very top in government’ and recognised that London has ‘unique dynamics’ compared with the rest of the country.
Having taken up her role at MHCLG in September, Averley was speaking at ‘Planning for the future – London’s view’ – a special webinar run by NLA last week which looked in depth at the government’s Planning for the Future white paper following its consultation period.
The paper drew responses ‘in their tens of thousands’, said Averley, to a paper which represented a significant step for how we do planning in England’. ‘This is a significant and serious piece of reform’, she added. But it will be business as usual for plan-makers for the time being. ‘We are looking at a couple of years before this actually hits the ground’.
The system had become difficult to engage with, said Averley, and off-putting for particular communities, with uncertainty and risk that the measures seek to iron out. But the ideas include ‘very strong intent around design quality and sustainability’. ‘So this is a really interesting and powerful moment where planning can reset itself for the 21st country’, she said.
One of the ‘pillars’ in the white paper is around digital, which government is hoping will help with engagement and cutting the seven years it takes on average to create a plan, while another is to do with planning for ‘beautiful and sustainable places’, partially through design codes. London has done an ‘incredibly good job’ here with its London Housing Design Guide, so is in a sense ‘well ahead of the game’. But the design point was one the chief planner sought to underline. ‘I would really like to give people confidence about the intent around design quality coming from the very top in government’, Averley added.
Chair of NLA’s expert panel on planning Johnny Popper said it was reassuring to hear Averley recognising that London is different since the white paper had been largely silent on that point and on the role of the London Plan. Although the panel strongly supported measures towards the digitisation of planning and measures to get a simpler, quicker process, a more ‘nuanced’ response was reserved for items like how the design codes might apply in a city that is a ‘bastion of world class design’, said Popper. Might they actually dumb down designers and developers into taking the easy route? The biggest area of concern, though, was in designating into the three land categorisations which it regarded as ‘simplistic’ in London but could be helped by a suggested fourth ‘sensitive’ category.
Gerald Eve partner Lisa Webb agreed it was good to hear London being identified but that perhaps the white paper is too focused on housing and not enough on offices, industrial or other commercial uses which add so much to the economy and which are key to the success of the capital city, particularly post-Brexit. Resources were also a key concern if planning authorities are being asked to cut the time taken to prepare local plans. And Riette Oosthuizen, head of planning at HTA Design said she welcomed the introduction of a chief officer for design and place making and so much emphasis on design in the white paper. But the paper leans very heavily on the use of design codes ‘as a sort of insurance policy for achieving quality’, said Oosthuizen, which should come with a degree of caution. ‘The presence of design codes alone doesn’t guarantee quality and deliver quality’, she said. ‘It’s quite important that we should ensure that they don’t stifle creativity’.
London’s specific and ambitious development requirements and opportunities can only really be facilitated through bespoke planning arrangements and policies, said Jorn Peters, principal strategic planner at the GLA. Design codes and pattern books, he added would not really be appropriate and could stifle innovation.
Finally, a discussion included John Romanski, head of development plan delivery at MHCLG, who said that, on the subject of funding, there was at least a recognition from government of the need to ‘upskill’, and by introducing things like digitisation they are ‘looking to take the burden away from planning officers to again allow them to do what they do best’. ‘There is a recognition that we do need to support the profession and will have more to say on that in due course’, he said.
Although this is the end of the consultation period, it was not the end of the conversation, said Romanski. ‘We need to keep continuing to discuss and talk and refine and come up with a system that can be utilised by professional planners but fully acknowledge there will be a need to upskill planners and the wider industry as the new system comes online’.