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Planning for quality: prescription or flexibility?

Design South East – Planning for quality: prescription or flexibility?

This roundtable brought together Kent & Medway local authorities, housebuilders and consultants to discuss and debate what is the best foundation in terms of planning policy for collaboration. It is a question of prescription or should policy provide for flexibility?

After introductions from Chris Lamb, Chief Executive of DSE and long-time advocate of design quality in the built environment, guests heard from two speakers with particular experience of using planning policy tools to deliver design quality on the ground. As usual, the session was conducted under the Chatham House Rule. Our speakers on the day were Richard Wilson, from the London Borough of Camden, and Jane Dunn, from Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design.

Richard was first to speak. In Camden, a proactive approach to planning policy that combines master plans, direct housing delivery and community collaboration come together to get the right results. There is more to it than the policy structures in place; in Camden, there is culture of good design. Politicians demand it, as do residents. High land values and owners with an interest in their legacy are also key components. Another component is the in-house skills within the Local Authority, and how they work. Rather than waiting for designers to come to them, they go out and work with external design teams, fostering a collaborative approach that gets the best out of team working. So, for Camden, bringing all this together is what helps get the desired design quality delivered on the ground.

Jane cited their experience working Birmingham. Here, an urban design strategy was developed and initially it was tough to get the required support to make it work. However, as culture changed, so did expectations. What also helped was moving the conversation about design on from what is essentially about personal preferences to that of principles that apply across the board. This helps to provide much-needed certainty to designers. As with before, the speaker stressed the importance of being proactive; any policy should seek to resolve issues, not create new ones. But when setting out policy, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Careful site allocation is needed, as this is a big urban design decision that needs to be considered not just in terms of what land is available, but in place making terms too.

The final discussion ended on the sheer pace of change. The way people live and more importantly want to live requires a shift in perceptions around what is good. Smaller gardens, higher densities and lower car ownership are all changes that need to be incorporated into the design policy agenda. Are we ready? Maybe not today, but policy can evolve rapidly to deal with new issues; it will be interesting to see how this unfolds going forward.

The full report can be found here.