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Voice of the Architect: At the coalface

Architects are at the coalface when it comes to the planning process — let them do their jobs, says Vicky Saunders, Managing Director of architecture firm BTP. Here Vicky explains why she believes a new ministerial team and policy agenda provides an opportunity to bring architects to the forefront of the planning process.

The architect is the champion of quality, but currently has no power to influence the developer led planning process. If we want to achieve quality design that lasts the pace, this needs to change. Let’s resist a negative reliance on standards and look at how we can simplify the planning process while bringing architects to the forefront.

Over the years we’ve seen that a system focused on standards that excludes architects does not have the positive impact and lasting legacy we are all striving for. Yet several new pieces of planning policy are on the horizon. These include the Accelerated Planning Green Paper (APGP), which is due to be published in the autumn.

At the moment the pre-application system significantly protracts the whole process. The pre-application stops communication with planners. It would be a welcome step forward if the Green Paper leads to a change that simplifies the process so that planning can be more agile, efficient and effective.

The revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is also another factor. It is meant to put a stronger emphasis on high-quality design of new homes and places. It includes a new Housing Delivery Test for local authorities focused on ‘driving up the numbers of homes actually delivered in their area, rather than how many are planned for’.

Add to this a new Design Manual with 10 key principles of good design that is in the pipeline from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as part of their Planning Practice Guidance, and you have several pieces of well-meaning policy.

But how will these all align in practice? These tend to be London-centric policies and neglect to involve architects even though we are at the coalface. They also sidestep the fact that the driver behind all these policy changes is cost. And now, in light of the appointment of our new Prime Minister, another new housing minister, Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey put in charge of planning; what will happen to the APGP and other policies?

My plea in the face of the tide of all this additional policy is simple. Let architects do their job. Put us at the centre of the planning process so we can deliver excellent design. Let’s recognise best practice guidance cannot be a substitute for skilled designers and their ability to analyse places and design with flair and sensitivity.

We have an important role to play in defending the quality of design, but all partners involved in a project need to be pulling in the same direction and communicating effectively or it can inhibit development and slow projects down to a standstill.

Quality is paramount. While I have worked on many successful collaborative projects, there are those where a good design has been stripped right back by the developer. Money must not come before quality — good designs are too often watered down.
We need to empower certified architects, allow them to be more hands-on at the site of developments. A self-audit checklist could be an effective tool. Architects could also be accredited to validate planning applications for small schemes to simplify the process.

I believe including renewables and a refocusing on the sustainability and carbon footprint of each build should be an important part of the design process and the level of self-auditing I’m suggesting. We would all follow the same basic standards and it would result in a lighter touch planning process, helping to accelerate developments.

It is also worth considering ways processes could be changed to make section 106 more efficient. It could be prepared alongside the planning in the early stages with a standard template rather than adding up to 12 weeks to the process.
Some standards that have been abolished mean we have lost valuable guidance. A reintroduction of Standard Scheme Development Standards for all tenures would be a really positive step. This leads to an internal quality of the layout, which is as valid as the external appearance.

I hope the Head of National Architecture, Andy von Bradskey can offer us architects some hope too. I urge him to champion the importance of design in the planning process as all these policy plans come to fruition in the coming months.
By putting architects at the centre of a simplified planning process we can prioritise quality design and create homes that not only look great but also are built to last.

Article by Vicky Saunders, Managing Director of BTP, appeared in LABM Magazine on 8th October 2019

 

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