Design Council Cabe’s Rachel Fisher on what the new planning framework means for design

Issued with much anticipation, if not much fanfare, the official government draft of the National Planning Policy Framework landed in inboxes late Monday afternoon. Though much of it was familiar, drawing heavily as it did from the Practioners’ Advisory Group Draft that we got a look at in May, there were a few pleasant surprises, and some opportunities for further improvement.

The overall aim of the NPPF is to make planning a participator rather than spectator sport. Rather than the community rebelling against the seeming tyranny of obscure circulars and arcane planning acts, they will be able to fully understand planning policy and so engage in the creation of the places in which they live, work and relax. This is a good thing not just for local people, but also for professionals and developers working in the industry. A clearer and simpler set of national policy will mean that everyone is on the same playing field. Delivering good places has never just been about planning, it’s the responsibility of highways, regeneration, public space teams as well. Without detailed national policy and guidance the role of local leaders will be critical in ensuring that Local Plans provide the necessary vision for an area and certainty for investment.

Design Council CABE welcomes the upfront and genuine commitment to good design and the benefits it brings contained in the NPPF. Indeed many of the core planning principles are the result of a good design process, such as managing patterns of growth or reusing existing resources, so it was puzzling not to see the achievement of a well-designed built environment included as a core planning principle in and of itself. This is partly perhaps explained by a limited understanding of what design entails. As we saw in the Lords Debate on the Localism Bill last week, there are still many people who think of design solely as being about an aesthetic choice; whether you go for steel & glass or wattle and daube. But we know that design is as much about a development process as about what the product looks like.

The Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development is potentially problematic. The government is committed to sustainability, as is evidenced in the Ministerial foreward to the NPPF, but the presumption doesn’t really live up to this expectation. It would appear that there’s a presumption that developments are innocent until proven ‘significantly or ‘demonstrably’ guilty on the sustainability front. We believe that a good design process is central to achieving sustainable development and is the mechanism through which the social, economic and environmental objectives of the planning system can be reconciled and met.

Finally on a topic very close to Design Council CABE’s heart, we were delighted to see that the role of Design Review is now being recognised in national policy, quite possibly for the first time. The idea that local authorities have a responsibility to make arrangements for design review is encouraging, but we would argue that for Design Review to be truly effective it needs to be independent and interdisciplinary. CABE, along with RIBA, RTPI, and Landscape Institute, developed guidance for organisations wishing to set up Design Review panels, this is still best practice. Over the course of the summer and autumn Design Council CABE will be working with partners and government to explore how best to deliver Design Review so that it is simple and effective and plays its part in delivering on all the promise and ambition of the NPPF.

Rachel Fisher is head of policy and programmes at Design Council Cabe