by Hannah Hickman….
The ambition to achieve high quality design outcomes in the delivery of new homes is undisputed and currently prominent on the political agenda. Most recently, we have seen amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework to strengthen its design focus, a new National Model Design Code, the creation of a new Office for Place to “drive up design standards” and the appointment of a Head of Architecture within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. These initiatives have been heralded by some commentators as signalling “a moment of potential national change in the relationship between design, planning and development in England”.
One aspect of the planning and development process that has hitherto received little attention in relation to ensuring high quality design outcomes has been post-consent: the journey of a development from the point of receiving planning permission (either through outline permission or full planning permission) through to on-site construction, occupation and on-going management. This was the subject explored by SPE’s Hannah Hickman, Dr Katie McClymont, Dr Hooman Foroughmand-Araabi, Nick Croft and Adam Sheppard (now at the University of Gloucestershire) in recent research commissioned by the West of England Combined Authority.
This study explored all post-consent stages including the discharge/variation of planning conditions; reserved matters; non-material and minor-material amendments; subsequent planning applications; monitoring; compliance; and, if necessary, enforcement, to assess the extent to which these stages may result in reductions in design quality and why.
Whilst the team concluded that what happens post-consent is not the main determinant of design quality, it was clear that post-consent processes can result in a significant drop in the quality of a scheme. They found a range of design elements being regularly impacted post-consent, from key details such as brick choice, materials, and window detailing, to green infrastructure and landscaping, and, on occasions, substantial scheme re-configuration and density alterations. The challenges associated with managing the cumulative impact of multiple changes were particularly problematic for guarding against reductions in design quality.
Some planning officers involved in the study were concerned that developers use post-consent rather unscrupulously and described post-consent change as being frustratingly routine and occurring in nearly all schemes, whatever the scale. They described schemes as being ‘watered down’ andreferredto conversations with developers’ post-consent that started with phrases such as ‘this wasn’t what we agreed guys’. Developers, on the other hand, saw the need for post-consent change as not only inevitable but necessary: the need to respond to the circumstances of a site once at the delivery stage, and development viability were the most common justifications for post-consent change.
The research highlights five areas for action to improve practice as follows:
- The first is about ensuring that post-consent is viewed as an integral part of the development process from project inception to on-site delivery, occupation and ongoing management. This is to address the fact that post-consent often falls below the radar.
- Part of this is about the second set of actions focussed on resourcing and empowering officers so that they the capacity to best support a development’s journey at post-consent and the confidence to advocate for the need to maintain particular design aspects of a scheme to achieve quality outcomes.
- The third set of actions is about implementing specific improvements to post consent processes: a more careful consideration of their effective operation in practical terms to enable officers and developers to see how processes can be altered to lead to better maintenance of quality.
Beyond these more practical and system/resource-related suggestions, there is also a need to widen the conversation about development mechanisms and design quality. The research focused predominantly on local authority practice, but bringing forward successful, high quality – development is clearly enhanced by successful collaboration between local authorities, communities and developers. Greater understanding of the post-consent journey from the perspective of all players is needed, and moreover, needed to address wider issues of trust between players best manifested in concerns about whether post-consent change is sought is for legitimate and justifiable reasons.
The team were delighted and honoured to win this year’s Royal Town Planning Institute’s Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence for this piece of research, praising it for its strong practice relevance. The team is also currently exploring further research to look at practice and outcomes across the four nations of the UK.
The research report can be downloaded via:
  https://matthew-carmona.com/2021/02/01/78-design-quality-have-we-reached-a-moment-of-national-change/