January 2015

In December the Department for Communities and Local Government launched Enabling High Quality Starter Homes for First Time Buyers – a consultation document on plans to help people onto the housing ladder.

Alongside the main announcement of a scheme to give 100,000 first time buyers a 20 per cent discount, there was news of a new Design Advisory Panel to ensure that new homes across the country are well-designed. With the backing of the Prime Minister, the panel will include architects Sir Terry Farrell and Quinlan Terry and philosopher Roger Scruton, alongside representatives from the Design Council, Create Streets, the RIBA and the RTPI.That design figures in a major government announcement on housing is to be welcomed, as is the recognition of the need to reconcile housing supply with design quality. Government recognition that design review should be a key element in the delivery of new housing should also be welcomed; it builds on the clear statement in the national planning policy framework that local authorities “should have local design review arrangements in place to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design.”

We need clarity on whether the new Design Advisory Panel is to provide operational advice to local authorities and developers on proposed schemes or strategic advice on housing design standards. Either way, now is a good time to remind the government of the excellent national design review infrastructure provided by the Design Network and the increasing take up of Building for Life by the development sector.

The fact is that a new panel providing operational advice risks duplicating the excellent work already being done by the established network of design review panels in place. Those panels contain many of the UK’s leading built environment professionals who together offer exceptional knowledge and expertise at the local level to developers and local authorities.

The Design Network, for instance, comprises several independent organisations which together form an established national design review resource with strong connections with the public and private sectors, and with many design review agreements in place with local authorities and the house building industry. Let’s hope the government is not re-inventing the wheel.

If the emphasis of the panel is on design standards for housing, lets hope this uses Building for Life, the government-endorsed industry standard for new housing developments. Design Network member organisations have huge experience of working with developers, community groups and local authorities to apply them in through constructive dialogue. It has taken many years for Building for Life to establish the credibility and support it now enjoys. Now is the right time for the government to demonstrate its continued support.

Let’s hope the government takes this opportunity to give further encouragement to local authorities and developers to use these exceptional design review resources and use the housing standards already in place. Design review take-up remains patchy in many parts of the country, and there remains residual suspicion of housing design standards. Taking the next step to properly embed design review and design standards would not only raise design quality but provide greater clarity and consistency for the development sector. The NPPF was one of this government’s first acts in power. With increasing pressure on the housing sector, this is the time to take its implementation to the next stage.

This article originally appeared on Planning Resource