Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets
Often councillors tell me they feel boxed in by the planning system or by developers claiming that it is only “viable” to build up and to build horrid.
This baker’s dozen top 13 points to be usable by councillors – of all parties. (A fuller version is on our website.)
Ultimately the planning system can only be justified if it is effectively mediating between what actually gets built and what people want to see built. If it does this, it can increase support for new homes. If it can’t (and it currently too often doesn’t) then it serves little purpose.
So here goes. If you want to help solve the housing crisis by increasing the chance of building in your borough, county or district being popular, being supported and (in the last analysis) being good, do this….
1. Ask members representing planning or housing what actual numerical evidence their officials have on what types of built form, material, typology and style local people prefer (we have never met any local government team who can answer this question with statistically robust data);
2. If they don’t have any evidence, suggest they do some proper research – using pictures and polling to get a usable and meaningful understanding. If they won’t do the research, do it yourself using online polling or focus groups. Thanks to improving technology this can done very cheaply now on a very modest budget; (we can help advise with questions – for example here);
3. Publish the results. If necessary (it almost certainly will be), ask officials how they intend to make use of this evidence to inform the council’s strategy and development-control decision-making;
4. Lobby publically and in private for the evidence of what people like and want to be embedded in the council’s planning strategy and development-control decision-making. Ask if borough strategy or other rules make it hard to produce the type of built environment that people most prefer. Changes may well be necessary – particularly guidance on light and street-width which are normally at borough level;
5. Encourage communities to form neighbourhood forums and use neighbourhood plans not to be NIMBYs but positively to set out the types of urban form and buildings that they like;
6. Most specifically, encourage residents on post-war estates to do this. Due to low densities and appalling post-war building standards many such estates are likely to be regenerated in the years to come. Encourage residents and neighbours actively to help shape the estate regeneration process rather than having it done to them;
7. Simultaneously, encourage the council, developers or local residents via neighbourhood plans to undertake characterisation studies of what it is that defines their and makes special their neighbourhoods. These can be quite specific (height, materials, block size, height to street width ratio);
8. Don’t just think about style or materials – also think about ‘typology’, ‘form’ and, yes, streets. What it is about the way in which some older developments are arranged, about their walkability and spatial arrangements that people seem to love? Do any borough rules (for example on street widths) prevent such neighbourhoods?
9. Don’t be fooled by the old lie that high density must equal high rise or large blocks. High density categorically does not require high rise or large blocks. With the right urban design and planning you can normally achieve high (though not ludicrous) densities within a perfectly conventional street-scape.
Here is some guidance from London as a (very) rough rule of thumb:
10. Don’t be fooled by viability assessments. Every developer we have spoken to about it in private has admitted to us, that you can make them say (nearly) whatever you want. A whole dark science has grown up around this. Wherever possible, push for viability assessments to be transparently public – so that independent experts can test and question them;
11. Push for whole life costings of buildings not just short term economics. Huge buildings’ economics look much less good understood through this prism. And better-designed, more modestly scaled buildings’ economics look much better. Other than in the very poorest parts of the UK, any developer who says he can’t afford to build anything decent is wrong or has too short term an approach. Likewise, any developer who says he must build high or huge is merely reflecting that he has over-paid for the land (or that the market assumes consent will be given);
12. Encourage developers, neighbourhoods and councils to use or demand a co-design approach to large schemes. These often (but not always) use methodologies such as charrettes or enquiry by design where residents, neighbours, architects, developers, local planners and other stakeholders actually design the scheme together over several days. This is very different from the standard design and then “consult” approach where architects design a scheme and then ask (often inconsequential) questions about it afterwards. We can tell you more about this but so can organisations such as Civic Voice and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities. Some (but not many) architectural firms also have wide experience of them;
13. Encourage developers, neighbourhoods and councils to use or demand a design code approach to large schemes, created in close conjunction with the local community. A Design Code is ‘a set of illustrated design rules and requirements which instruct and may advise on the physical development of a site or area. The graphic and written components of the code are detailed and precise, and build upon a design vision such as a masterplan or other design and development framework for a site or area.’ Design codes are not new. Statute-based codes on what could and could not be built dominated London for over a hundred and fifty years expressed through legislation such as the 1667 ‘Act for Rebuilding London’ and the 1707, 1709 and 1774 Building Acts. Design Codes have not always sat easily with the Planning system as it has evolved in the UK post-1947 and so design codes are now far more common abroad then in the UK. Today, design codes in various forms are used internationally, for example in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States, as a means to focus on the delivery of high quality with popular support.
To summarise, throughout all your interaction with your council’s strategy and development control decisions; push for a proper factual understanding of what people like and want; push to embed this understanding in strategy and decision-making; and push for economic decisions to be made on basis of longer not shorter term economics.
The question is not ‘how do we build more homes’ but ‘how do we make new homes more popular.’ The planning system needs to change and give staggeringly greater focus to what people want and like. It is arguably one of only two components of the British state which remains, in its fundamental shape, as it was it designed in the 1940s.
The disconnect between what gets built and what most people like must be fixed for all our sakes. Neighbourhood plans should be but the first step in a direct planning revolution which removes planning power from property funds and city officials and returns it, where it belongs, to the rest of us.
This direct planning revolution is coming. Improving technology, social media, the desperate need to build more houses in a politically acceptable fashion and (perhaps above all) collapsing confidence in an inefficiently representative state are all pushing for it.
You, as an elected councillor can, if you chose, be at the vanguard of this necessary revolution.