For decades local planning authorities up and down the country have been reluctant to refuse poorly designed residential and other developments on design grounds. At last this ism beginning to change:

“……Comparing the decisions after July 20th 2021 to those before, the odds in favour of local planning authorities winning cases on design grounds have shifted from just 5:7 (against) to 13:7 (in favour). In other words, previously there were more losses than wins (for local authorities), and now there are close to two times more wins than losses.”

Six perceptions have underpinned this reluctance:

  • Design is too subjective – design has been seen by many as too subjective, potentially opening up planning judgements to challenge.
  • Quantity not quality is prioritised – in the past government guidance has prioritised other factors over design quality, most notably housing supply.
  • Housebuilders are too formidable – pragmatically some authorities have taken the approach that it is better to negotiate and accept what you can get, rather than refuse schemes, given that housebuilders will eventually wear them down and get their own way.
  • Good design takes too long – some believe that negotiation on design takes too much time, time which already stretched planning officers don’t have.
  • Design is an afterthought – practices of determining the principle of development (in an outline application) prior to determining how schemes will be delivered in design terms (in reserved matters) undermine design-based arguments from the start.
  • Costs will be awarded – for all the reasons above, cash strapped local planning authorities worry that refusing on design will open them up to costs being awarded against them at appeal.

Drawing on recent planning appeals data, the report reveals that none of these perceptions are any longer true (some never were).

Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made:

The evidence from the thirty-two design-related planning appeals and associated applications for costs suggests that we have moved into a new era in which design quality should be prioritised by all local planning authorities. Authorities should have the courage of their convictions and reject schemes that they judge to feature poor or mediocre quality on design. This should include outline applications if site capacity and sustainability has not been adequately tested through design.

Using the expertise of a qualified design officer and / or the judgement of a design review panel to underpin and reinforce design decision-making can ensure that decisions are robustly made.

When decisions are made against officers’ advice they run the risk of being poorly grounded in evidence and a full appreciation of the planning balance. In particular, unpalatable truths should not be ignored, including that land may have been previously inappropriately consented, that a shortfall in housing land exists, or that contexts have already been subject to irreversible character change. In such circumstance it may be better to defer decisions in order to collect and examine any missing contextual evidence rather than making decisions in haste and opening up the possibility of an award of costs at appeal.

The new national emphasis on design does not mean that every appeal will be won, ultimately there is a planning judgment to be made and Inspectors may judge things differently to local authorities. However, success is much more likely if decisions on design quality are objectively made based on local contextual analysis and relevant national and local policy and guidance on design.

Authorities with less than a five year housing land supply should be open and up-front about this and ensure that the planning balance properly reflects the need for new housing, but also that new housing is built to the standards set down in the NPPF – in other words that it is “well designed”. Design should not be used as a grounds for refusal simply to bolster other weaker grounds but only if design quality falls below the ‘well designed’ threshold set in the NPPF as interpreted through national and particularly local policy and guidance.

Properly done, the consequences of standing up to bad design is unlikely to be negative and, over time, can help to build a local culture whereby design quality and not design compromise is the expectation. This should be the aim, everywhere.

There is an interesting YouTube video of this project here

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Last Updated on July 14, 2022 by Kingston Society