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Trends in achieving good design

Trends in achieving good design

Charlotte Walker 25 Jan 2023
The importance of good design and the delivery of beautiful places continues to gain momentum in planning; equally, the ways in which good design is being achieved is through increasingly collaborative processes. Looking back, the 2019 RTPI report and survey[1] highlighted how planners across the UK consider design quality to be important in planning and discussed how design quality can be improved. Then at a national level, 2021 saw a drive from UK Government to create high-quality places; the NPPF was revised to increase focus on design quality for delivering ‘beautiful’ and ‘sustainable’ places and the new National Model Design Code was published to provide detailed guidance on the production of design codes, guides and policies. In London, good design has become integral to the planning process and ways to improve design quality through the development management process are increasing. The Design Council[2] state that design review is a well-established way of improving the quality of design outcomes in the built environment, and it is now recognised in the National Planning Policy Framework. In 2020, the GLA reported that 83% of Local Planning Authorities have either established or begun to develop Design Review Panels (DRPs), as well as ‘Quality Review ‘or ‘Place Review’ Panels[3]. These Panels comprise independent, multidisciplinary professionals and support local authorities in evaluating schemes (often large and strategic in nature) at the pre-application stage by providing advice to improve development proposals. The question is how do we keep striving for good design? In a recent GLA survey of design review in London, 60% of respondents reported that DRPs often comprise of professionals who are not representative of the communities they serve. In addition, it is difficult to recruit suitably qualified professionals onto a DRP who are from the boroughs they serve, especially if a DRP is run by an external provider. Moreover, Place Alliance reported in 2021 that only a fifth of local planning authorities in England engage communities in the design process and that proactive community engagement in design is minimal[4]. This question brings Community Review Panels (CRPs) into the picture - another way good design is being achieved. Since 2020, five additional CRPs have been established in London from the first being Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation Community Review Group which began operating in November 2018[5]. CRPs are groups of ten or more local volunteers who do not need experience or knowledge in planning or architecture. They are appointed to reflect the demography of the areas and chaired by a professional engagement expert. CRPs review development proposals at pre-application stage and their detailed comments and understanding of the locality are given weight in the planning process and can influence outcomes. Frame Projects, a design focused project management consultancy, reports that CRPs are seen as innovative and that local planning authorities are expressing an interest in establishing one, with Ealing Council now having the first borough-wide community review panel in London[6]. Whilst this blog looks at London examples there are good examples across the UK, some of which include new community groups set up to guide the design of new developments in their local areas following funding from DLUHC’s 2022 The Design Code Pathfinder Programme[7]. Nevertheless, there are other initiatives focusing on getting young people interested and involved in development proposals in their communities. The November 2022 Inspire Future Generations Awards[8] in London showcased how young people are adding value to the design process. The awards celebrate and recognise initiatives that work with children and young people to engage in and advocate for a better built environment. The awards gave prominence to a wide range of projects including the My Place Finsbury Park Pilot in Harringay London and the Kingston Riverside Regeneration Project in London, which were shortlisted for best youth community engagement award. Both are examples of how to successfully regenerate neighbourhoods and estates by involving and empowering young people in the discussion of change where they live. Estate regeneration is a growing sector and as highlighted in our Lichfield’s Insight[9], such projects involve complex considerations and effective communication among landowners, decision takers and particularly residents. Therefore, what made these two initiatives stand out was their ability to capture what young people value in their local areas such as particular landmarks, public spaces, and perceptions of spaces, then to maintain and enhance those attributes in the design process. An example of how this was achieved was through the early initiation of co-design and placemaking research approaches where young people’s local knowledge and thoughts shaped the design process. The benefits are wide reaching from supporting community cohesion to promoting inclusive design and designing multigenerational spaces. Moreover, the projects present educational opportunities and raise the profile of property and construction as career option for young people.   The award ceremony firstly showed that initiatives for young people to input into the design and planning process is increasing and gaining popularity and secondly, that these initiatives have tangible outcomes and influence development projects. Whilst initiatives to involve young people in urban regeneration and the design and planning process are not completely new (see The London Legacy Development Corporation’s Legacy Youth Voice established in 2008[10]), more opportunities exist for such initiatives as local planning authorities and public commissioning organisations are increasingly driving development. Public Practice explains that more local planning authorities are delivering housing schemes, regeneration projects, and are often acting as the master developers; with this change, there is a renewed interest and ambition within local planning authorities to foster or bolster their design culture. Redbridge Council are a prime example of this and in September 2022 partnered with the large UK developer Countryside to regenerate Ilford Western Gateway and deliver a new thriving and sustainable town centre for local communities. Part of the project will involve establishing a Youth Council and a Legacy Committee (Community Board), both with decision-making responsibilities to shape the design of the project.  It's evident that the community review model is expanding. Input into the design and planning process through more formal platforms and collaborative initiatives for communities - and now more so for young people - is exciting and something to be encouraged. Lichfields have seen this from being part of the Teviot Estate project team, bringing forward housing association Poplar HARCA and Hill Group’s new mixed-use regeneration scheme in Tower Hamlets. Poplar HARCA have set up a Youth Empowerment Board (YEB) in the aim of 16 to 21 year olds influencing the regeneration and design process. For local planning authorities there also appears to be potential benefits from such design engagement and input with young people. The opportunity to discuss and contribute leads to design development influenced by local knowledge across all ages with a real experiential understanding of place as local people are often best placed to know what development is appropriate for their area. The views of all generations, including future generation, are key to successful regeneration projects and therefore initiatives focusing on young people influencing the design of development proposals offers much to the question of how we keep striving for good design. The design of development proposals is an iterative process, and these examples show that forms of youth and community design input in the planning process could result in more successful development proposals. Ensuring that development proposals respond to local needs, challenges and opportunities is important and design input from both young people and communities seems to be increasingly explored to achieve this. Perhaps such input can support and feed into the DRP process? As built environment professionals, let’s hope 2023 continues to see more collaboration between organisations, companies and local planning authorities on creating platforms for communities and young people to input into the design and planning process.   [1] RTPI | RTPI design quality [2] ​Design Review: Principles and Practice - Design Council [3] 2020 Placeshaping capacity and design review survey (london.gov.uk) [4] The Design Deficit | Place Alliance [5] Community Review - an overview | Frame Projects (frame-projects.co.uk) [6] Community Review - an overview | Frame Projects (frame-projects.co.uk) [7] Communities empowered to shape design of neighbourhoods - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) [8] Inspire Future Generation Awards — Thornton Education Trust [9] Great Estates: Planning for Estate Regeneration in London (lichfields.uk) [10] Legacy Youth Voice | Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park   Image Credit: PTE Architects 

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Sky's The Limit: Go Tall to Meet Housing Needs
Whilst the development industry remains occupied by the latest raft of proposed changes to the planning system (see my colleague, Jennie’s Baker’s succinct blog), I cannot help but feel that the persistent political meddling will result in less homes being delivered, rather than more. Whilst the Government continue to bang the drum for LPAs to prepare and maintain up-to-date Local Plans, the recent political turmoil is actually slowing down LPAs from doing this, and the proposed changes to the NPPF dilute the requirement to meet objectively assessed needs in full. This is typified by the consultation on reforms to the NPPF which propose a transitory reduction in the minimum number of years of supply that LPAs are required to maintain for housing, watering down the soundness tests insofar as needs are now met “so far as possible” with strategies no longer needing to be justified, as well as a strengthening of Green Belt protection by ruling out boundary reviews to meeting housing needs (even though the amount of green belt has actually increased over recent years!). By way of offering up some sort of solution, the Government has, however, been making positive noises around the ‘brownfield first’ approach. This isn’t anything new, far from it, and won’t deliver all of the homes we need (see my colleague, Matthew Spry’s musings on this issue), but if we are to optimise the density of brownfield sites then we need to braver and deliver an efficient use of these often sacred pieces of real estate. Whilst doing this we need to be careful not to promote development considered “out of character” with existing context, or out of line with design guides, codes, or supplementary guidance that advocate higher densities (i.e. to address proposed amendments to NPPF Para 11 (b) ii.). The indicative changes to the NPPF now specifically reference uplifts to the Standard Method figures for urban local authorities in the top 20 most populated cities and urban centres. From a London perspective, this shouldn’t be anything new since the London Plan already designates Opportunity Areas (often supported by OAPFs) and there is a requirement in Policy D9 to identify tall building zones (as was originally requested by the Secretary of State in 2020 in the interests of ‘character’ and empowering local communities). It is clear that national policy is being strengthened in this sphere, but does it go far enough on tall buildings and higher density residential? Footnote 30 to the NPPF consultation version states that ‘brownfield and other under-utilised urban sites should be prioritised, and on these sites density should be optimised to promote the most efficient use of land… This is to ensure that homes are built in the right places, to make the most of existing infrastructure, and to allow people to live near the services they rely on, making travel patterns more sustainable.’ – well that sounds simple enough, hurrah! However, having spent my professional career advising on urban development projects, in particular higher density residential schemes and tall buildings, there is usually a default position in most urban communities, local planning authorities and committee chambers that tall buildings are a bad thing, often using heritage, townscape or daylight impacts to beat down heights, or concerns around capacity of local infrastructure provision (whether that be transport, health, education or open space). Of course, our historic environment is important, and so is the ability of our community infrastructure to meet the needs of residents, but does it warrant depriving people of a place of their own whether that be owning, renting or to take them off Council waiting lists and out of emergency accommodation and into purpose built affordable homes? A balance needs to be struck between these competing issues, and we must remember that many affordable homes are brought forward as part of private sector development, including those that include tall buildings. Aside from the typical consideration of townscape and heritage impacts on listed buildings and conservation areas, one restrictive London planning policy in respect of height and density is the protection of ‘Strategically Important Landmarks’ from views identified in the London View Management Framework (LVMF). Published in 2012 as a follow-on to the 2011 London Plan, I would suggest this strategy needs a refresh to ensure it is fit-for-purpose as our Capital’s housing needs continue to go unmet. For example, the continued protection of views towards St. Paul’s Cathedral – is it still a ‘strategically important landmark’ given there are many other buildings in the Capital that allow a viewer to orientate themselves within the City, and it could be said that its setting has already been compromised in medium and longer range views. Just imagine how many additional homes could be provided in some of its viewing corridors! The Mayor’s office don’t seem shy when it comes to preparing new guidance, so I’d suggest a refresh of the LVMF might be a worthwhile exercise. Gentle densification, mansion block typologies and even mansard roof extensions (which have for some reason slipped into the NPPF consultation!) are all ways to deliver beautiful new development in urban areas, but the reality is that tall buildings offer much quicker wins to deliver the market and affordable homes that our communities need, at scale. Comparatively, London is not a tall building city compared to many others around the globe, and our Capital stands out against our regional cities which have few *very* tall buildings, save for a couple of recent developments in Birmingham or Manchester. I was lucky enough to spend 2019 travelling the globe and to my surprise I saw that the rest of the world has made far greater progress on delivering new homes in many a tall building, located conveniently near transport hubs, health and education services, and open spaces for residents to enjoy. You only need to scan some of the world’s leading cities to see that we are lagging behind when it comes to optimising site capacity through the use of tall buildings. Of course, many of our Asian counterparts have higher population densities that dictate such building typologies, and there are some examples of unnecessarily elaborate tall buildings in Middle Eastern cities that were more about architectural statement and status than residential needs, but we could certainly catch-up if the political will was there to support a new-age of ‘beautiful’ tall buildings, designed to achieve the highest sustainability standards to combat the effects of climate change. There has rarely been much concern about going bigger in North America, whether that be your fast-food meal or the tall buildings of New York – in Manhattan alone there have been three very tall residential buildings completed since 2015 which rise in excess of 425 metres. In comparison, London’s tallest buildings are sub-300m, and are often non-residential office uses (see the City of London cluster) or indeed mixed-use (the Shard being the most obvious example). Tall building developments are not straightforward, and there are a myriad of planning matters to consider (viability, design, heritage, fire safety, aviation, wind microclimate, daylight/sunlight and overshadowing let alone how to deliver high performing buildings in carbon terms to combat the climate emergency), but they will certainly help us reduce pressure on green belt and green fields, providing liveable new communities in close proximity to the services that people need. If our elected politicians are going to deliver the homes we need on brownfield land, then they need to introduce specific national policy support for tall buildings within urban areas, in particular the top 20 most populated areas, taking a lead from the London Plan’s approach to strategically planning tall building areas, and winning the hearts and minds of local communities in these areas who could all see the benefit of such development. Perhaps it might be too late for the incumbent Government, but it could be possible for a future Labour administration to put cranes in the air given their typically strong mandates in urban areas – the sky’s the limit when it comes to meeting our housing needs. Lichfields’ has a demonstrable track record advising on some of London’s tallest residential buildings. We are currently advising on the Borough Triangle development in Southwark, a residential-led tall building scheme comprising 838 new homes in buildings up to 46 storeys, a new public piazza, retention and refurbishment of two local heritage buildings, and new commercial space. The proposal is designed by RIBA Stirling Prize winning architects Maccreanor Lavington. The scheme’s two tall buildings will enable the delivery of high quality new homes in an accessible location that has been identified for high density in an adopted Local Plan, coupled with delivery of new public open space and amenity areas, urban greening and other benefits to the local community that will help to reinforce and enhance its opportunity area character. I sincerely hope that more high quality schemes like this will be brought forward to deliver the homes we urgently need in London and urban areas across the country. Image Credit: Maccreanor Lavington, Cityscape, Berkeley Homes (South East London) Limited

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