The Conservative ‘green paper’ on planning* published last week mentions design and architectural standards a dozen times but what does it really imply for architects?

The paper calls for a ‘radical reboot’ for planning which it calls a ‘broken system’. Although painfully naive (I doubt that any of the authors ever prepared a planning application or processed one) the paper is full of interesting proposals some of which could just, given time, produce improvement to the planning process and, perhaps, even to outcomes.

The core proposition is: “To protect our environment and improve our quality of life, we need a planning system that enables local people to shape their surroundings in a way that, while heeding global and national environmental constraints…is also sensitive to the history and character of a given location.” This is to be achieved by what is called ‘Open Source’ planning.

There is a recurring emphasis on design but I fear this means a mixture of prescription, guidelines, local design standards, design by community charette and new barriers to imaginative development unless embedded in the local plan. The paper says: “We expect local authorities to set out architectural and design standards”. These are likely to be lowest common denominator codes especially since authorities will not have the skills and resources to do otherwise, as Ruth Reed has rightly pointed out.

Add to this the notion that applicants should consult with neighbours and seek majority support for their schemes and you have even less scope for innovation let alone the ‘shock of the new’, notwithstanding the paper’s claim that “promoting the highest standards of architecture and design… is an important factor in encouraging communities to support new development”.

Our planning system is unusual in that it is essentially discretionary – anything goes if it can jump all the hurdles. Most countries work to rigid codes which preclude exceptions. The Conservative scheme calls for plans to be generated locally, by which they mean through neighbourhoods, parishes or estates; to work these will have to be unambiguous and up to date as well as consistent with national streamlined policies – although they don’t explain how they will resource this prescriptive and un-English Nirvana.

The concept is enforced by seeking to emasculate the appeal system (the only bit which currently works) so that permitted schemes which do not comply with the plan can be appealed by third parties, which means committees will be very reluctant to approve them in the first place. Developers are understandably horrified at the idea which has been firmly rejected in the recent past. However Andy Rogers, the ACA planning group chairman, comments: “Any consultant worth his salt will always be able to argue on appeal that the refused (or of course approved) scheme does (or of course does not) comply with at least part if not all of the neighbourhood plan/UDP/national policy, meaning that appeals will in my view continue as now”.

On the plus side is a huge opportunity for architects to take a more commanding role in development. Under the so called ‘open-source’ approach there would be great scope for deemed permissions. These are described as “automatic permissions where sustainable development meets no objection from a significant majority of immediate neighbours”. It will generally be unlawful for an authority to refuse permission if it conforms to the local plan and is ‘sustainable’.

Architects will find themselves with an enhanced role in pre-consultation, with the aim of achieving and demonstrating the explicit support of the majority of neighbours so that the detailed consideration of an application by the planning authority is avoided and the client gets a quicker, cheaper go-ahead. Compliance will have to be certified by the architect, and will be a real value-added service. Add to this the current movement towards integrating building and planning control and architects will quickly be in a position to regain lost ground particularly if the Conservatives introduce policies “designed to bring competition to public service provision” as they promise. That would really transform the culture of planning.

Adding ‘automatic’ approvals as the paper is suggesting may reduce the workload of planning departments but it will increase that of architects.