The Government has launched a consultation proposing revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework as well as seeking views on the draft National Model Design Code. The consultation was opened on 30 January and runs until 27 March 2021.
Firstly, the proposals seek to clarify how Article 4 directions should be used in an effort to reduce blanket limitations on changes of use to residential. It is difficult to assess ahead of time, but one must question whether neighbourhood amenity is at risk from the revisions. Whilst it is great to encourage house-building, it is important that those new homes have accessible local amenities like shops, restaurants and pubs, otherwise it will only serve to encourage driving and increase traffic. There must also be some concern that the change will mean the public is further prevented from being able to participate in the decision-making process.
Secondly, we are told that the consultation is looking to strengthen the environmental and sustainability aspects of the framework and to ensure that developments adopt the “building beautiful” mantra, but will these aspirations be borne out if adopted, and do they go far enough?
The proposals are looking to objectify what beauty means by enshrining principles into a National Design Model Code and a Local Design Code. But is beauty something that can be harnessed and codified, or will this lead to a loss of creativity or originality? It is good to have a standard, but beauty is enhanced by variety; we would not want all neighbourhoods to be identical, no matter how attractive they are. Whilst a focus on beauty and sustainability is to be welcomed, it needs to be balanced against individuality to ensure we do not just have homogenous, albeit better-designed, developments that are not sympathetic to their surroundings or, more importantly, to the environment. Aspiring to build beautiful projects is laudable, but necessarily needs to play second fiddle to carbon neutral, or carbon negative, developments that actively mitigate climate change.
To their credit, the proposals do highlight that a development should “significantly enhance its immediate setting” and should be sensitive to what makes an area unique and emphasise a need to engage with the local community. So long as this does not mean that errors from the past are replicated, all to the good – hopefully the combination of local consultation and objective standards will avoid this.
One aspect which, if adopted, should contribute to a greener and more sustainable future for home building, is the requirement that, before planning will be granted, the following sustainability elements will need satisfying:
Biodiversity: all schemes will be expected to achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity and new streets should be tree-lined;
Transport: car-free alternatives need to be more prominent and better supported. Pedestrian and cycle routes should be part of a wider choice of modes of transport in any new development;
Green infrastructure: the concept of green infrastructure, including green buildings and open spaces should be brought to the forefront of a designer’s mind when planning a development; and
Flooding: there is a push to adopt natural flood management defences – natural barriers, soakaways and trees form a part of this.
The changes put the onus on the developer to demonstrate that its proposed development will actively improve the environment. It should be planned in from the outset; it cannot be passive or an after thought.
With these guidelines to follow, both planners and developers should, in theory, be better equipped to get it right first time. Only time will tell if this proves to be the case.