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By createstreets, Feb 8 2017 12:50AM

Major advances for the cause of community-led co-design in today’s Housing White Paper reflecting Create Streets’ research, publications and policy suggestions

Well done to the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP and Gavin Barwell MP and their teams for their important steps on community support, design codes, improved planning certainty and encouraging popular street-based high density development in the Housing White Paper

Much of the ‘public debate’ about today’s Housing White Paper will focus on the change (or lack of change) to the green belt policy and the announcements about obliging developers to deliver housing quickly. These are important subjects. However, ‘below the line’ there were some axiomatically important announcements that, in time, could just help change our planning system for the better and very fundamentally indeed.

Never forget, how very odd our system is in comparative and historic terms; 1940s statist in conception and very organic and common law in its execution it combines a view on nearly everything and utter certainty on nearly nothing. Many foreign planning systems are less ambitious in their scope but more rule-based with greater certainty about what can and cannot be delivered.

To make matters worse, many of the rules that we do have aren’t very good and make it harder to deliver the type of finely grained, high density traditional town that many people love – and will pay for. Polling and pricing data also consistently shows that too many modern developments do not achieve the same levels of desirability or resident satisfaction as their historic predecessors.

Until we evolve the questions from ‘how do we build new homes’ to ‘how do we make new homes more popular’ it will continue to be hard to build sufficient homes.

Fundamental change of the planning system and housing market can’t be done with a ‘big bang’ or the system would fall over and house building collapse further. This is in no one’s interests. That is why most of the Housing White Paper is about ‘forcing more homes through the current pipe.’ But, in time, we need to widen the shape of the pipe – and do so with popular consent. In this way the planning system and sub-functional housing market can evolve to one that is better able to help residents and communities confidently and visually express what they like and what they will support. Then in turn it can provide greater clarity to developers about what is and is not acceptable in local neighbourhoods.

The good news is that today’s Housing White Paper starts this process with a range of practical and incremental steps which permit communities more clearly to express and explain what they like and will support so that the system can become more certain and better able to deliver.

We are also delighted, and proud, to be able to say that many of these proposals appear to reflect our research, community work, publications and policy suggestions. Our community work and research at Mount Pleasant was even cited by name - on p.31 if you are interested.

Here are our eleven quick observations on the White Paper – and what we’ve managed to read of it so far.

One: much of the analysis of the problem seems correct. Despite the noises off about the impact of mortgage rates, the government are right to keep focused on the core underlying issue of lack of supply. They are also right to be worried about the ludicrous levels of concentration in the supply of new homes and in worrying about the quality and quantity of the rental sector.

Two: we’re delighted to see some fundamental understanding and focus on the link between quality of design and popular support for housing which we’ve been calling for. This majorly reflects our research and data – and is a definite win. Or as the White Paper puts it; “Giving communities a stronger voice in the design of new housing to drive up the quality and character of new development, building on the success of neighbourhood planning.”

Three: the focus on use of public sector land is correct. Very good news (and a win for Create Streets), is the Government’s recognition that this can’t just be a model of sale for the highest price but needs to involve public / private sector working together. Paragraph 1.27 reads; “we propose to ensure all authorities can dispose of land with the benefit of planning permission which they have granted to themselves. We will also consult on extending their flexibility to dispose of land at less than best consideration and welcome views on what additional powers or capacity they need to play a more active role in assembling land for development (including whether additional powers are needed to prevent ‘ransom strips’ delaying or preventing development, especially in brownfield regeneration).” More details are then set out about how this might work.

Four: the focus on estate regeneration is correctly balanced with a proposal (para 1.28) to “amend national policy to encourage local planning authorities to consider the social and economic benefits of estate regeneration, and use their planning powers to help deliver this to a high standard.” It is right to stress that estate regeneration must be done well. Some recent examples have not been a success, and these have understandably been the highest profile cases. However, done properly, with genuine resident support and input, it can be.

Five: we welcome the focus empowering communities through a focus on Neighbourhood Planning and increasing its possibilities. In our work we have found that communities do not always realise the potential of Neighbourhood Planning to set where new development should go and what it should look like, so we are pleased to see the proposals to change the NPPF to ‘highlight the opportunities that neighbourhood plans present for identifying and allocating sites that are suitable for housing, drawing on the knowledge of local communities’ (1.33)

Six: development Orders and design Codes - A big win for Create Streets is the proposal change the NPPF to ‘encourage greater use of Local Development Orders and area-wide design codes (1.33). Design codes are a potentially transformative way for the UK planning system to bring about popular design whilst keeping certainty for housebuilders of all types. This is as outlined in the Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill of 2015, put forward by Lord Lexden.

Seven: we support the proposals to ‘expect local planning authorities to work with developers to encourage the sub-division of large sites.’ (1.33) This will encourage more housebuilding from a wider range of actors.

Eight: better, proper consultation - we are delighted to see the inclusion of visual tools and local consultation as proposed improvements to the National Planning Policy Framework. This is a big win for Create Streets – as our community work and research has shown, people respond positively when they are genuinely engaged with and when visual tools that genuinely give a sense of what new development will look and feel like is used, rather than (often misleading) industry jargon.

- Specifically, we are delighted with the proposals to ‘expect that local and neighbourhood plans (at the most appropriate level) and more detailed development plan documents (such as action area plans) should set out clear design expectations following consultation with local communities. This will provide greater certainty for applicants about the sort of design which is likely to be acceptable – using visual tools such as design codes that respond to local character and provide a clear basis for making decisions on development proposals; (1.46)

- This approach is emphasised and backed up by paragraph 1.48 which states, ‘To really feel involved in the process, we need to help local people to describe what good design and local character looks like in their view. The longer term ambition is that the Government will support the development of digital platforms on design, to create pattern-books or 3D models that can be implemented through the planning process and used to consult local people on potential designs for their area.

Nine: the White paper is absolutely right to recognise that high-density housing can be popular and attractive: ‘When people picture high-density housing, they tend to think of unattractive tower blocks, but some of the most desirable places to live in the capital are in areas of higher density mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.’ (1.51) We are particularly pleased that they have chosen to cite our work at Mount Pleasant in the footnotes at this point!

Ten: we are pleased that the White Paper supports our belief that certain standards can have unintended negative consequences: In this way we are pleased that the proposed NPPF amendments include that plans and individual development proposals should;

- ensure that the density and form of development reflect the character, accessibility and infrastructure capacity of an area, and the nature of local housing needs; and

- take a flexible approach in adopting and applying policy and guidance that could inhibit these objectives in particular circumstances; for example, avoiding a rigid application of open space standards if there is adequate provision in the wider area. (para 1.53). However, more work will be needed to ensure this

- Supporting this, paragraph 1.55 states: ‘The use of minimum space standards for new development is seen as an important tool in delivering quality family homes. However the Government is concerned that a one size fits all approach may not reflect the needs and aspirations of a wider range of households. For example, despite being highly desirable, many traditional mews houses could not be built under today’s standards.’ We are pleased therefore that the White Paper makes the commitment to ‘make sure the standards do not rule out new approaches to meeting demand.’ (1.55) Clearly, this must not be a removal of space standards (which are a good thing) but a recognition of some of their perverse consequences

Eleven: the government are right to stress that the permission process needs to be faster but they should be stressing it needs to be more certain as well. It is lack of certainty that presents a barrier to entry and which makes it harder for smaller players to enter the housing supply market. We worry that the welcome steps to diversify the market could be undermined by this.

More to follow in the days to come but some very welcome signals and opportunities for the future. Our vision is for a planning and housing market ten or fifteen years from now which is fundamentally better at providing the sort of place where people want to live and where they thrive. This is a very important and welcome step in the right direction. We look forward to working with communities, local government, developers, researchers and government to move this forward.

By createstreets, Dec 1 2016 10:05AM

Flora Sutton revisits the Sutton Estate in the wake of the council’s decision to reject Affinity Sutton’s proposals to reduce the amount of housing and affordable housing on the site.

In 2015, Affinity Sutton, a housing association, proposed to demolish twelve of fifteen blocks of red brick, five-storey social housing in Chelsea. The other three were listed

The buildings are worn and torn but structurally sound. In its heyday, the Sutton Estate was exemplary; well-maintained and integrated into the surrounding streetscape. Today the brickwork is still perfectly intact and the terracotta detail worth thousands of pounds. The buildings are well spaced allowing for natural light to flood through. Architecturally, the estate is top of the class. It is home to the locals that form part of the permanent fabric of this Royal Borough.

Affinity Sutton’s plans proposed to knock down the buildings and knock up in its place a soulless replica made up of 106 luxury apartments for private sale and 318 homes for social housing. These plans reduced the number of social housing by 30 percent and the overall density of the estate by 8 percent, from 462 to 424. The target market would have been the super-rich snapping up valuable land while the residents are decanted off around the country.

Thankfully, officials of the RBKC council have advised the plans should be rejected on three grounds:

1. The plans failed to show that the maximum amount of affordable housing would be provided. There would have been a net loss of social rented space. When I was investigating back in 2015, there was a complete vacuum in provision for the 73 flats used for sheltered housing. These were lived in by elderly residents with a warden to keep them safe, a garden and a communal living area.

2. The quality of design of the new estate was ‘insufficient’. A less tactful evaluation by a resident was that they were ‘mediocre plans by a third-rate architect.’ The new building design was nothing on the old; a soulless replication of a set of buildings with life and atmosphere.

3. No agreed S106 obligations to secure affordable housing and appropriate infrastructure required to make the development acceptable. (S106 relates to the provision of affordable housing among other conditions.)

Another Save our Sutton campaigner commented on the local media that the plans were, ‘a bit like using Chippendale for firewood and replacing it with something from Ikea, then expecting everyone to congratulate them on a bold new design.’ There was certainly more than a hint of flat pack about the new buildings, and to those who know the beauty of the existing estate, flat pack wouldn’t quite cut it.

Nevertheless, this has been a hard-won battle, and the future is not inevitably secure. The local campaigners Save our Sutton have fought hard, racking up nearly 11,000 signatures to date to protect their homes and the working-class enclave. On 15th November, at the town hall, the decision on the officials’ recommendations to reject the plans was ratified. This kind of victory is far from the norm, in a London where land is eye-wateringly valuable. Just around the corner, cranes feast on the ruins of Marlborough School; an equally attractive and community-centric primary school. It has been obliterated to make way for John Lewis part two, backed by Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley. The fact that Sutton still and will stand is testament to the perseverance and strength of a group of committed campaigners and to local democracy getting it right. Save our Sutton has been a community effort that shows that despite appearances, Chelsea retains some sense of the village life it has been so celebrated for.

The residents hope that there will be improvements made to the buildings. Where Affinity Sutton are correct in their analysis is when they point out that the buildings are not currently in peak state. Specifically, the association decreed that the apartments were unfit for modern living. The campaigners have accused the association of wilful neglect so that they could use this argument in the logic for their plans. But with the plans now rejected, there is much that can be done to bring these wonderful Sutton buildings back to the former glory. But will Affinity Sutton want to do it?

Andrew Barshall, who spearheaded the campaign, said that they are ‘looking at the feasibility of double mansard roofs for several of the buildings, outside lift blocks, and joining blocks at the back giving a courtyard effect in the centre of them.’ Another superficial amendment which would improve the overall patina would be wooden window frames to replace the modern plastic ones that stick out in their incongruity.

Three cheers! One for grassroots activism, another for the continuation of a streets friendly estate, and a third for a wonderful work of architecture being given the attention it deserves. ‘But, this is only a battle we have won,’ says Barshall, ‘and we now need to get someone to step in and do what's best for Chelsea and the residents.’ As Rocky once said, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’

Flora Sutton is a journalist and a member of Create Streets.

By createstreets, Nov 29 2016 06:06PM

We recently carried out a poll in with Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre, on the future of Wimbledon Town Centre. Here is the context and the results.

As part of the Crossrail 2 development, a new station is being proposed at Wimbledon. This would see some changes made to Wimbledon Town Centre. The current proposals would see the demolition of a number of buildings to accommodate this new station and other developments. Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre therefore approached us here at Create Streets in order to carry out this visually-based survey. The aim was to get a sense of what people like about Wimbledon Town Centre, what they are not so keen on, and what sorts of changes they would like to see in the future.

There were 711 respondents to the survey. As Wimbledon's population is 68,000 this represents 1% of the overall population – which is very impressive and a testament to the hard work of the Friends of Wimbldon Town Centre. 97% of respondents had local postcodes with a good spread of ages.

Most people answering the survey (68%) use Wimbledon Town Centre because they live nearby.

Historic Brick Buildings (68%) are by far the most popular architectural element of Wimbledon Town Centre. Twentieth Century Portland Stone is the second most popular (28%).

The three most popular buildings, and the ones that local people most want to protect from demolition, are The Old Town Hall (1st), Wimbledon Fire Station (2nd) and the Prince of Wales pub (3rd).

77% of people think that the current balance of office space is about right.

‘More Diverse shops’ is the number one thing that residents believe could be improved in Wimbledon Town Centre, chosen by 59% of respondents. Second was better traffic management (57%) with better designed buildings in 3rd with 45%.

61% of people believe more parking will be needed in the future after the upcoming reduction in the amount of spaces.

People overwhelming (78%) want a traditional urban form of tightly packed streets and public spaces.

Only 17% would like to see Wimbledon as it is today. Large and high buildings with large open spaces are only favoured by 3% and a focus on internal shopping centres by just 1%.

There is overwhelming support (86%) for traditional urban buildings. Most respondents would like either terraced flats above shops (55%) or Mansion Blocks above shops (31%).

There is overwhelming support for development to be low to medium rise. The preferred height limit for Wimbledon Town Centre and The Broadway is 4 storeys or less (53%) with 5-7 storeys preferred by 38%. Only 9% support buildings at 8 storeys or above, only 4% at 10 storeys or above.

Towers are not wanted in Wimbledon. 90% of respondents would not like to see any towers (buildings of 15 storeys or above).

The 45-64 years old age group was the most represented in the survey (43%) but there was representation from every group with 18-30 the least represented (8%).

It was a great pleasure to help The Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre with this important work. We hope that TfL, the local council and private developers take advantage of the insights it gives them into how to develop with local consent and support...

By createstreets, Nov 21 2016 12:10PM

Sergio Porta, Professor of Urban Design at the University of Strathclyde, introduces a new international Master in Architecture based on Christopher Alexander’s principles.

As evidence continues to demonstrate that our efforts to provide liveable, beautiful and sustainable streets, neighbourhoods, and cities fall short, the question of how to educate professionals and the new generation of architects and urbanists looms large. That education in architecture needs profound rethinking is now no longer an argument reserved for radical academics. In a 2014 survey conducted in Britain by the Royal Institute of British Architects, it was found that 86% of respondent employers, and 82% of students, state that students/graduates lack the knowledge to build what they design; also that 80% of employers and 73% of students agree that students lack the practical skills needed to practice architecture.

What has happened? Peter Buchanan dedicated one of the most illuminating chapters of his Big Rethink to this problem. In essence, Buchanan argues that we are ushering in a new era of interconnected problems that occur in continuous relationship with the environment around them. Therefore, he posits, our work should assume a profoundly ecological perspective based on inherent interdisciplinarity and, most importantly, a new understanding of the human and broadly biological dimensions of reality. In short, we need a fresh new go at everything that modern architecture has demonstrably failed at. Which is, well, almost everything.

That was in 2012, and certainly Buchanan’s position echoes, and contributes to, a much wider debate that touches on the routes to professional status, sustainability in the age of urbanisation and the Great Acceleration, the effect of the recession on a British higher education system whose reaction is increasingly defensive and hyper-bureaucratic, rather than innovative and risk-taking.

One of the main manifestations of such fundamental conservatism in the educational system has to do with interdisciplinarity. In a famous article published as early as in 1948, Warren Weaver talked of the future of the sciences of complex systems, then just emerging, to tackle problems of “systems which are organic wholes, with their parts in close interrelation (…), new problems the future of the world depends on, (…) the essentially organic problems”: he said that such future was certainly to be brilliant, based on huge computers and collaborative interdisciplinary knowledge.

Almost seventy years later, we can say that computers have delivered, but the same cannot be said of interdisciplinarity, still stuck in the rigidity of a complex disciplinary-based institutional framework. In a 2016 report entitled “Crossing Paths”, the British Academy points out that “The university system does not score well in any of these areas, in promoting interdisciplinarity in research, in teaching or in the provision of expert advice. The universities themselves are organised on disciplinary lines, as are the research councils, as well as most leading journals and academic publishers. The incentive structures set up by the interplay of these institutions militates against interdisciplinarity”.

And if that is true of science in general, even more so it is in Architecture, where according to Buchanan “architectural education is still geared to producing the solitary genius, rather than today's collaborator”, and “the relativism that characterises postmodernity rejects hierarchies, so cannot prioritise, and sees all forms of 'reality' as arbitrary constructs, so dismissing of science as just another narrative.” In practice, we talk of tutors who impose their often obscure and idiosyncratic interests to astonished students, forcing them into the labyrinths of abstract theories or, even worse, and often at the same time, the absence of any.

Buchanan’s words would be no surprise to Christopher Alexander, who has engaged a life-long “battle” against the mechanistic system of housing production that took over the world after WWII in all the developed Countries. His teaching, writings, as well as many built projects, have demonstrated that it is in fact possible to place human feelings at the core of a different process of construction. In this, the direct activism of the inhabitants brings life into the building and generates a kind of quality that counts for all of us, makes things work well and naturally on the ground and “heals the land and the people”. Such quality he names “Beauty”. Or “Wholeness”. Or, finally: “Life”.

Maggie Moore-Alexander, 2014

Chris’ Wholeness—Beauty—Life circle

Reproduced with permission

It is from this urgency for a new architectural education and the foundations laid by Christopher Alexander that a new Master in Architecture is about to be launched in Naples, Italy. Students will spend a year in a 17th Century monastery of incredible beauty, gently poised on the top of a hill in the very heart of the dense historical “Spanish Quarters” in Naples city centre, overlooking the Gulf and the Vesuvius volcano. They will build with their own hands from the first to the last day of the course, first re-building architectural components of the existing monastery, and then working on a new project for its central Camellias court. They will learn how to create and make at the same time, and do it humanly, efficiently and joyfully. They will learn traditional construction techniques by using them in practice, cultivate the land to grow their own food, work side by side with world leading scholars and practitioners in architecture and many other disciplines ranging from evolutionary biology to the physics of complex networks, study and experiment in a structured investigation of their own self in relation to that of others and the space, explore eastern philosophies and perform art, craft and drama therapy in a long journey through their body-mind. A holistic approach to the act of building as the foundation for happiness, which relies on the practice of a science of beauty.

The Master in Architecture “Building Beauty: Ecologic Design and Construction Process”: course model. The one-year specialist international course will be started in October 2017 in Naples, Italy.

An ambitious, transformative programme. In fact, a dream foundational programme for the 21st century architect, delivered with some of Christopher Alexander’s closest collaborators and some of the most relevant scientists and scholars in different areas of knowledge.

Registrations for the inaugural session will be opened in April 2017, for the academic year starting in October 2017. For more information please check:

By createstreets, Nov 2 2016 01:48PM

Nicholas Boys-Smith's latest essay can be downloaded in full here:

It is now six years since the Conservative Party published its policy green paper, Open Source Planning (which first proposed the concept of ‘collaborative planning’) and five years since the Localism Act 2011 created the concept and procedural reality of Neighbourhood Plans. A political century ago, back in May of this year, the Government proposed a new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, among other things, to “strengthen” neighbourhood planning.

So it’s not a bad moment to ask: is Neighbourhood Planning working? And what could make it better? Is it delivering what the then Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark, was aiming for – “a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people…. reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective”? Is it allowing communities, as was intended, to “say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like”?

Based on research to date, and Create Streets’ experience working with communities, admittedly mainly in London, the answer so far is ‘yes but there’s more work to do.’

One thing is certain. Neighbourhood planning is finally ‘taking off’. The Government does not appear to have published any figures since the end of last year (why?) but by the end of 2015, over 1,700 communities, representing over 8 million people across the country were neighbourhood planning. 126 neighbourhood planning referendums had taken place with another four happening in January. Whatever way you ‘cut it’ that’s a success for community engagement and participation (what is the Big Society called now?) which, most research tells us, is correlated with wellbeing and community cohesion.

So far, so good. However, look a little more closely and a few wrinkles emerge.

Neighbourhood Planning first started to get somewhere in smaller communities where parish and town councils are formally able to initiate the process. About 80 per cent of neighbourhood plans have been started by parish or town councils according to one study. For example, people living and working in the Upper Eden valley area in Cumbria were the first in the country to take to the polls and vote on a neighbourhood plan produced by local people for local people. This was approved in March 2013. This was a pattern that was very much repeated in the early years with other early neighbourhood plans including Thames in Oxfordshire.

However, it has proved harder to get neighbourhood planning going in larger towns and cities. That may be because urban communities can be more transient and less integrated with fewer ties to a specific place. It’s certainly because towns and cities have fewer civil parishes.

Of the first 130 plans approved only 12 came from non-parished areas. It’s only since the Local Government and Rating Act 1997 outside London and the Local Government Act 2007 within London that residents in unparished areas have had the right to demand a new parish. The first civic parish in London since 1965 only came into being, in Queen’s Park, in May 2012. Although there are others in the offing, such as at Bankside or the Isle of Dogs, there is no sign that urban Parish councils will become widespread any time soon.

The problem is that absent parish boundaries and parish councils, even getting to the start line is very complex and time-consuming. You need to define and create both a Neighbourhood Area and a Neighbourhood Forum. Not needing to adhere to traditional ward boundaries these can be difficult to set. And Local Authorities need to approve them.

To put it kindly, many local authorities have struggled to prioritise this. To put it less kindly, some have seemed to delight in using slow turnarounds and procedural minutiae to stall and discourage the entire process. As neighbourhood plans are such a nascent tool, it is not difficult to see why increasingly understaffed and overworked planning officials may choose to devote less rather than more time to something whose purpose and value has not always been obvious to them. However, several neighbourhood planners we know feel that they have been the victim of protracted passive aggression.

As one very impressive and self-confident neighbourhood planner said to us the other day:

“We are taking away their power aren’t we? Of course they’d like us to go away.”

To further complicate things Neighbourhood Areas can span across two or even more boroughs, and the process requires fitting in with two (or more) different sets of processes.

The mooted Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood Neighbourhood Forum is located across five boroughs and six wards. Some forums (for example the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Forum) have even been rejected by one borough and approved by another.

However the outlook for urban neighbourhood planners is slowly improving. From early on the government placed a particular focus on helping communities in less prosperous, usually urban, areas develop neighbourhood plans. That seems to have worked. By the end of 2015 about 18 per cent of completed plans were in poorer areas. More widely, urban community groups are starting to learn from each other how create neighbourhood forums and areas and an eco-system of smaller consultants who can support them are learning how to do so. (A declaration of interest: that lists includes Create Streets which I run).

More and more neighbourhood plans in urban areas are starting and, with a lag, completing. In London for example there are now five completed Neighbourhood Plans: Norland, Fortune Green & West Hampstead, Sudbury Town, St Quintin & Woodlands and Kentish Town. There are many more underway. In total 96 Neighbourhood Areas have either been set or applied for designation in London. A similar pattern is building up, perhaps more slowly, in some other cities.

So neighbourhood planning is now happening. But that brings us to real question: is it working? Are neighbourhood plans allowing communities, to go back to the original intent, to “say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like”?

The critics of neighbourhood planning come from two directions. Some housebuilders contend that neighbourhood plans are merely NIMBYist fronts fighting a rear-guard action against desperately needed new houses. By contrast some, more often on the left, have seen neighbourhood planning as a spray on fig leaf of meaningless community ‘influence’ while real powers were stripped from local planners and strategic planning was deconstructed. Self-evidently both these positions cannot be entirely true. And a look at the data is reassuring.

A DCLG study into early neighbourhood plans found a ten per cent increase in the number of houses being planned compared to the council’s local plan. The number of plans studied was quite modest but certainly many plans are focusing on new housing. The Winsford Neighbourhood Plan identifies room for 3,362 new homes, 200 more than in the emerging Cheshire West and Chester Local Plan.

There are also many examples of community-planning which even the most cynical would be hard-pressed to dismiss as superficial. One theme that comes through strongly is a popular emphasis on a strong sense of place, on co-housing, self-build, brownfield, local builders and building on smaller sites rather than housing estate style developments from volume housebuilders. For example neighbourhood plans in Slaugham, Petersfield, Frome, Arundel and Allendale all emphasised this in different ways – often throwing in rigorous criticism of what was built be volume housebuilders along the way.

This seems pretty hopeful. However, a review of what neighbourhood planners themselves think leads to less sanguine conclusions. A study of 120 neighbourhood forums and plans completed in 2014 by Locality and the University of Reading was not reassuring. Amongst its key findings were that many participants feel oversold on the plenipotentiary powers of neighbourhood planning and that participants do not see neighbourhood plans as radically changing the culture of planning system.

Further emerging research into these communities by one of the study’s authors, Matthew Wargent at the University of Sheffield, backs this up. It finds that;

• “participants do not see neighbourhood plans as radically changing the culture of planning system; and that

• participants at the heart of planning forums reported ‘episodic empowerment’ and increased community capacity, but this was often curtailed by contact with ‘experts.’”

More positively however, “participation has increased communication between communities and planning authorities.” I fear that these rather negative findings match our own experience that individuals who have helped lead neighbourhood planning exercises are often worn down by the complexity, bureaucratic enmity and frustration of it all. They often do not feel that they have had the impact they expected or wished. Perhaps this reflects the key constraints that have been put around the process. Neighbourhood Plans have to be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan, they cannot promote less development than it and they have to have regard to national policies. This is particularly problematic in areas without a clear five year supply leading to several developers attempting to judicially review neighbourhood plans.

The frustration however also reflects neighbourhood plans not using the right tools or being sufficiently smart or ambitious about what they can do. Some new research is revealing that local authorities’ advice sometimes incorrectly constraints what residents feel they are able to do. We are aware of one example where a neighbourhood forum was told (almost certainly incorrectly) that it could not insist on building height limits.

One senior planning inspector very supportive of neighbourhood planning (yes they do exist) expressed his frustration to us in a meeting a few months ago:

“Half of them are barely worth writing. They just parrot the local authority’s plans. I am giving up examining them it is so pointless.”

How we can make for more effective plans? Some of the answer lies at the local level. The most powerful and effective neighbourhood plans have a very strong sense of place, of what will get built and where. The two most powerful, yet insufficiently used, tools in the Neighbourhood Planning armoury are allocating sites for development and setting out a clear and predictable Design Code for what that development should be and look like.

In a Neighbourhood Plan communities can allocate sites for development. But only about half do. This means identifying land in their Neighbourhood Area for future development and to what purpose (residential, commercial, business, leisure or, normally best of all, a mix), as well as safeguarding land the community wants protected (such as green open space). It means that communities are more likely to protect areas they want to see remain the same, by constructively suggesting alternative areas to be developed. When this is done it has real teeth as at least three housebuilders have discovered to their cost when they challenged neighbourhood plan allocation decisions in the courts – and lost.

One excellent example is the Thame Neighbourhood Plan which allocated 770 new homes to six sites dispersed around the town as opposed to the single site the local authority had been proposing. More plans should allocate specific land for development.

A Design Code is a set of illustrated design rules and requirements which instruct and may advise on the physical development of a site or area. The graphic and written components of the code can be detailed and precise, and build upon a design vision for a site or area. This is potentially a powerful tool for the community to have an input into what kinds of buildings and typologies they want to see built in their local area. Absent this, even Neighbourhood Plans which are very explicit about their desire for new development to ‘fit in’ with their neighbourhood are very frustrated by the inability to influence what actually gets built. We are aware of one proposed development (on council-owned land) in London where some local residents feel their neighbourhood plan’s demands for harmonious developments are being all but ignored by both the local council and the not-for- profit developer.

Design Codes are not a panacea but they can help prevent this. They have been associated in the UK and the US with a greater sense of place, with more development, with more local support for development and with greater value. We recently set out some detail on how communities can maximise their impact within the current framework – Love thy Neighbourhood. To the best of our knowledge no completed Neighbourhood Plan has used a design code though several are now working on one. More should start.

But communities cannot do it all themselves. Some of the answer to making more effective plans lies at the statutory level. Neighbourhood Forums and Plans should be simpler to create and manage – above all in urban areas. Where necessary they should be better funded and the use of techniques, such as design codes, which can maximise local support for new housing and speed and certainty of what will receive planning permission, should be encouraged

Unfortunately influential individuals within the bodies meant to be supporting neighbourhood planning are actively opposed to their use. In private they admit to favouring ‘architectural innovation’ over maximising community support for new housing. This sort of nonsense needs to stop. We set out a range of ideas for how to give Neighbourhood Plans more teeth in the non-partisan Direct Planning Bill which we helped draft with Lord Lexden in 2015.

So Neighbourhood Plans are happening. And they can have real impact. But that does not mean that they are always worth the candle. By being ambitious, by allocating sites, by defining with certainty what development is, and is not, acceptable communities can maximise their chance of both supporting development but guarding their (very legitimate) sense of place.

The new Government, too, should continue to promote and encourage Neighbourhood Planning. The Direct Planning Revolution is a necessary step in meeting the British housing need and in shifting the question from the procedural ‘how do we build more homes’ to the fundamental ‘how do we make new homes more popular.’

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Narrow front, many doors. The best model for cities trading off density, walkability & as many houses as possible ?

"Create Streets speaks London's language"

Sir Simon Jenkins, former chair of The National Trust

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