Housing design quality emerging as a
key issue

Practical planning advice by Brian Waters Architects’ Journal February 2001 [Outstanding Issues]

A range of new planning policies and decisions is conspiring to boost the role of the skilled architect in housing. Although more coincident than deliberate, the cumulative effect will be to focus house builders and housing providers on the importance of the quality of design to their success in driving applications through the planning system. The new PPG3: Housing1 started the onslaught of new policy. Last AutumnÕs Urban White Paper picked up much that was demanded by the Urban Task Force, and English Heritage has just published a report on the future of the historic environment called Power of Place2.

This has been welcomed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, particularly for its support of architecture centres, for encouraging authorities to use spatial master plans based on character assessment and EHÕs commitment to develop a joint strategy with CABE to ensure that new development enhances the historic environment. At the end of last year the DETR published a good practice guide on urban housing capacity: Tapping the Potential3. This has been produced to help authorities identify opportunities for re-using existing buildings, empty homes, office conversions and other under-used or derelict land, to meet future housing needs.

Sent to all planning authorities in England the document describes an approach to assessing urban capacity which can be followed systematically. Paired with this is published a draft good practice guide on the managed release of housing sites which aims to ensure the brown field sites are used before green field sites are released. Both were foreshadowed in PPG3. Planning minister Nick Raynsford has emphasised that the draft guide does not attempt to prescribe how urban housing capacity studies should be carried out and that the approach chosen by local planning authorities will need to reflect local circumstances and opportunities. He underlined the fact that the DETR is looking to engage in a focused dialogue with planning professionals and trade bodies (I think that is code for professional institutions) before publishing the final version. Architects should make a point of making their responses known.

In the background to all this Government policy and guidance is a resurgence of influence on planning matters from the professions, designers and urban designers in particular. Capacity studies by a Llewelyn-Davies and the work of the Urban Task Force are obvious examples. Early in the year a new draft PPG1, the planning policy guidance from DETR which embraces all the rest, is promised. It is understood that, having dropped specific reference to the role of architects in the preparation of planning applications in the current (second) version of PPG1, a new emphasis will refer to the importance of design and urban design skills being available to applicants and authorities alike.

It is to be hoped, as the Association of Consultant Architects has long urged, that the involvement of a qualified designer, most probably an architect, will again become a material consideration where design matters are at issue in a planning application. Two very recent appeal decisions demonstrate how this new emphasis might work more frequently in future. Architect Robert Adam has designed a large country house in undeveloped countryside in HampshireÕs Test Valley. The inspector ruled that consistency in the design and all its elements is the best pointer to truly outstanding architecture and resisted the authorities’ reliance on PPG7 (The Countryside, Environmental Quality and Economic and Social Development) whose main thrust is to stop new housing being built away from established settlements. However it does provide for the exceptional case: Òthe opportunity to add to the tradition of the country house, which has done so much to enhance the English countrysideÓ… provided that such a house is of the Òhighest-qualityÓ and Òtruly outstanding in terms of its architectureÓ.

Whilst the objectors argued that AdamÕs classical design was not of its time and therefore not good architecture, Adam called two experts with different stylistic predilections: arch-modernist Michael Manser and architectural historian David Watkin. Both told the inquiry that the design fulfils the test being of the highest quality. The inspector came to the view that the architecture of the house and its landscaping is outstanding. His reasons included that the design has evolved under the direction of a skilled architect and a that the design is based on sound principles of composition, proportion, space and style and will be both attractive and enduring.

This will become important precedent for PPG7, being the first case where the exception clause has succeeded since its introduction in 1997. More broadly it indicates how the Planning Inspectorate will address the integrity of the design as distinct from the integrity of the style in future appeals. In a rather different and equally recent case4 architects Stock Wolstencroft have designed a 14-storey private and shared ownership development for a housing association in Tower Hamlets and found themselves fighting an appeal solely on the design of the building on its 0.25ha site. This produced a residential density of 1000 habitable rooms per hectare which compares with the borough UDP maximum of 250. The inspector was satisfied on design-related issues such as sunlight and daylight standards and the impact of the height of the building and was convinced by the design quality sufficiently to award costs against the local planning authority.

The pressure is now on, and not just in major metropolitan centres, to find housing opportunities in the re-use of land and redundant or under-used buildings in high density and mixed-use developments which are capable of meeting a variety of markets and standards. Increasing planning authority demands for house developers to concede a proportion of Ôaffordable housingÕ can, in the end, only be met by permitting significantly higher densities of development. Combined, these factors will make ingenious and compelling design in terms of layouts, urban compositions and mixed use developments essential rather than optional.

This will give architects the opportunity of demonstrating that their skills add value. A good reference point for the demonstration of these skills is the excellent Web site of Architects in Housing. Go to www.designforhomes.org. footnotes: 1 AJ ?15th December 2000 2 see www.english-heritage.org.uk 3 see www.planning.detr.gov.uk 4 AJ reference News pages? sometime late December I think. Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 020 7828 6555/ brian@bwcp.co.uk. CAPTION for attached pic: A current application for a mixed use development of offices and 12 flats on the Grand Union Canal: architect BWCP.