This week’s long awaited update to government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) announced, in the words of Secretary of State for Housing James Brokenshire, that quantity must not compromise quality when it comes to the building of new homes. The NPPF now states, “The creation of high quality buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve.” To this end, it encourages more local authorities to adopt design codes and style guides. It also empowers local authorities to reject planning applications that do not meet their design standards.
These changes to the NPPF are significant and welcome, reflecting many of the recommendations Policy Exchange made in our recent report Building More, Building Beautiful. As we argue in the report, the planning system should be more insistent that new homes are built in line with the designs and styles that people like and want. Our research showed that doing so is essential to securing the support of people for new homes in their area and therefore to boosting the number of homes built each year – something endorsed by the Prime Minister at Policy Exchange’s 2018 Summer Party.
While preferences for design and style vary from setting to setting – for instance Victorian terraces in urban areas, cottage styles in rural areas – there is a clear consensus for new homes to be built in fitting with their existing environment. Again, the notion that good design is fundamental to unlocking support for new homes is something now reflected in the NPPF, which states, “Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, creates better places in which to live and work and helps make development acceptable to communities.”
As the document that sets the direction for planning policy in England, the centrality of good design to the revised NPPF is welcome. Although it will take time for changes to translate into local development plans – which themselves often take years to draft and adopt – it signals a shift towards a planning process more considering of, and with greater priority given to, the types of homes and places people want to live and work.
The challenge going forward is twofold.
First, that ‘good design’ is defined by local people, something the Secretary of State has also made clear. In his speech to Policy Exchange last month, all of the things he said are achieved by good design – a sense of belonging, a sense of home and comfort, somewhere people can identify as their place – are oriented around how people value and experience their built environment. The planning system is a part of the welfare state so it is right that it serves public welfare in this way.
The NPPF identifies the mechanisms for achieving community engagement from an early stage – for instance the adoption of local design codes and style guides, alongside the use of visual tools, engagement workshops and the provision of design advice to communities. Each demand a local people more engaged in the design process themselves, but it also necessitates the support of the local planning authority to make sure they are accessible for all sections of society.
The second challenge concerns the style of new homes and developments. While government’s insistence on good design is welcome, the reality is design can be limited to the basic functions of a building like layout and space standards. Style pertains to the aesthetics and feel of a building – something our research shows is vital to securing people’s support for development.
The revised NPPF, and government as a whole, is neutral on the sorts of architectural styles that should be built. This is an improvement on the previous NPPF, which said “Planning policies and decisions should not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes”. However, the public do have a strong preference for new homes built in certain styles: our research shows a strong preference for traditional styles, particularly amongst C2DEs. So the revised NPPF is a missed opportunity for encouraging the building of new homes and developments in styles that we know the public support.
The reality, as shown by our research in Building More, Building Beautiful, is that people feel disempowered to influence the design and style of new developments in their area. Instead, the process is seen to be dominated by developers and planners. With the support of government now codified in the NPPF, local authorities should feel empowered to reach out to their community and demand new homes and developments are built in line with what is liked and thus what serves public welfare. Design and style is particularly important to the new places being planned and built in the Wider South East as part of government’s programme for new garden towns and cities – something Policy Exchange will soon be starting work on.
There is no one answer for ‘solving’ the housing crisis, but popular design and style is a major part of achieving consensus for new homes. The NPPF provides the platform for achieving that. As new homes and places are planned and built, it is vital those principles are now upheld.