Across the South East, councils are facing huge demand for new housing against the backdrop of uncertainty in planning reform. We recently held roundtable discussions with key practitioners in Surrey, Kent & Medway. Drawing on the findings of the recent House of Lords report, Meeting Housing Demand, the discussions explored the challenge and opportunities of delivering on housing targets and ensuring high quality design. The roundtables were chaired by Director of Design South East, Chris Lamb, using the Chatham House rule. The discussions opened with a short talk by Hilary Satchwell, Director of Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design and trustee of Design South East.

Here are some of our key takeaways from the discussions:

Planning is political, which can hamper housing delivery

Meeting Housing Demand does not capture the fact that planning is inherently political. If local communities and councillors are opposed to development, it is difficult to deliver even much needed housing. However, when Councillors buy into the need for growth in well-designed places, they can become valued advocates and help to achieve better outcomes. Whatever planning reforms come to fruition, there will be a need for better relations between planning officers and councillors to work together on common goals. This might involve training for Councillors, and for planners to better communicate the complexities of planning decisions.

The complexity of the planning system is pulling planners away from housing delivery and design quality

The planning system is complex and demands on planners are growing. One of the great strengths of the planning profession is the ability to balance various competing interests and coordinate other professions. However, though planners are expected to be knowledgeable across a wide range of topics, from design to ecology, education and training are not keeping pace. On top of this, the complexity of the planning system often draws planners away from their primary tasks, for instance to prepare for lengthy appeals. Simplification of the local plan and 5-year land supply processes would free up capacity in planning departments to focus design quality. The introduction of better technology (PlanTech) would also help to streamline processes.

Design is not just about beauty

‘Beauty’ is now acknowledged as an objective of planning. However, beauty is not the same thing as good design. Design encapsulates considerations beyond aesthetics, including functionality, longevity, and sustainability. There is a concern that the term beauty gets conflated with pastiche, faux-historical architectural styles. Fundamentally, the concept of beauty is challenging because it is so difficult to define and agree on. The National Design Guide is more helpful in this respect as it sets out a range of criteria to judge design on. One attendee felt that local SME house builders are more sensitive and attentive to design because they know the context.

Design and sustainability must be front-loaded in the planning process

Good design does not happen by accident. Preparing design guidance and site briefs, and actively championing good design from the outset, results in better outcomes and a smoother planning process. The same is true of sustainability; it must be considered from the earliest stage of design and councils can ensure this by setting clear expectations for development. A more proactive relationship between local authorities and developers is needed to achieve this.

Communities must be involved in housing delivery, but planners are lacking the resources to do this effectively

Community engagement is essential but is time consuming and resource heavy. Members of the public that engage tend be older and affluent, and so more needs to be done to reach a wider cross section of society. The pandemic has taught us that digital technology like Zoom allows us to engage with a wider demographic. Engagement is also an opportunity to explain to communities why development is necessary and therefore open up a more productive conversation. Stronger strategic planning and reform in infrastructure delivery would help planners to provide more certainty for communities.