All things great and beautiful
The quality of our public spaces – whether urban or rural, modern or ancient – has always mattered, and the aspiration to build beautifully is noble, and as old as planning itself. After all, the Minister who steered the 1947 Act through Parliament, Lewis Silkin MP, introduced it to Parliament in the following terms: it would “begin a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have done before.“
The Government is seeking to capture the imagination, the vision, of that spirit in its recent response to the publication of “Living with Beauty”, the report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission co-chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton.
The Commission had advised the Government to “Ask for beauty; Say no to ugliness; and Promote stewardship”
- Changes to the NPPF, currently the subject of consultation (ending 27 March 2021);
- A National Model Design Code – also the subject of consultation; and
- An “interim Office for Place” charged with establishing a new expert design body and piloting the NMDC in 20 communities.
It is clear that the Government has accepted the fundamental importance of the issues addressed by the Living with Beauty report, stating in the introduction to its response
Addressing the housing shortage remains one of the central challenges that we face as a country, but we must ensure that we are building homes in the right places, and of high quality, in order to gain the support of local people and deliver beautiful and sustainable environments in which to live. Part of making the housing market work for everyone is ensuring that what we build is built to last, and that it respects the integrity of our existing towns, villages and cities. Ultimately, building better and beautiful will help us build more. [emphasis added]
The main NPPF amendments consist of:
- Use of the word “beautiful” as as part of the social objective of sustainable development, at paragraph 8: “… fostering well-designed, beautiful and safe places …”
- Additional work for Local Planning Authorities : they should prepare local design guides or codes which are consistent with the National Design Guide and NMDC, and reflect local character and design preferences [paragraphs 127-128]. The assessment of a proposal’s design is then explicitly linked to the content of these guides and codes, whether national or local;
- The specific expectation that new streets will be tree-lined [new paragraph 130]; and
- A replacement of paragraph 130 (permission should be refused for development of poor design) with a new paragraph 133.
The optimism inherent in the use of the word “beautiful” is undoubtedly attractive and refreshing, even inspiring. Furthermore, the explicit use of, and/or reference to, the National Design Guide and NMDC by applicants and appellants should make more rigorous the assessment of proposals.
However, the proposed changes to the NPPF leave me with two substantial concerns. One is the perennial question of the resources needed by, and available to, local planning authorities. The other is whether paragraph 133 is sufficiently clear and strong; whether it has teeth.
In order to work as intended, planning authorities have primary responsibility both for the local design framework for decisions that deliver a well-designed and beautiful environment, and for enforcing it. This is clear from the raft of policy propositions within Living with Beauty for which Local Government has primary responsibility (see pages 133-137).
The skills, and the time, which Local Government is required to invest in order to deliver the policy outcomes required, are quite obviously considerable. While there is talk about shifting resource from development management to strategic planning, and greater use of digital technology as part of the Planning for the Future reforms, there is little sign that the additional demands on local authorities have been recognised and planned for. If the resources aren’t there, the changes will be superficial; the vision will remain just that.
Saying no to ugliness is an essential corollary to asking for beauty. To say no, it must be possible, both to identify development that is not well designed, and to have a policy environment that supports refusal.
Dealing with the first of these, the Commission’s second policy proposition is that planning policy should expect net gain. A specific re-write of paragraph 130 is proposed, one that encapsulates this expectation in a definition of well designed development. Even the current, 2019, NPPF supports the refusal of development “of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area …” (paragraph 130) and the Commission proposed tightening the drafting, retaining the expectation that good design takes those opportunities.
In this context, the Government’s response is surprisingly lacklustre and weak: the new paragraph 133, which replaces the 2019 paragraph 130, is not drafted in the terms recommended, conveys no confident statement of what is or is not a well designed development, and omits the reference to opportunities for improvement.
Bearing in mind that the design guides and codes will include many different benchmarks, and objectives, some of which will be met in even the worst of schemes, I am left with the impression that paragraph 133 actually makes the NPPF’s insistence on good design weaker not stronger. I would expect advocates and planning consultants to become adept at persuading decision makers that their proposal does (or, in the case of an outline scheme, can) reflect the policies and guidance overall, and that any specific ways in which it does so deserve significant weight.
There is much else to discuss in the Government’s response to Living with Beauty, and I welcome the inspiration behind the changes to the NPPF outlined above. However, inspiration won’t be enough: in the pursuit of beauty, planning authorities need money, and policies need teeth.
Author: Harriet Townsend
 Dougal Ainsley of Lewis Silkin in The Planner, 25-7-18