Is Zoning System of Housing Bill a ‘Nail in the Coffin’ for Good Design?

Building Design – with commentary following

US-style zoning will be introduced into the UK through legislation set to be published this week. With serious implications for design quality, shouldn’t we have discussed it first, asks David Blackman

This week looks set to see the unleashing of a new drive to increase England’s historically low levels of housebuilding with the publication of a Housing Bill.

Much of the attention has been focused on David Cameron’s Conservative party conference pledge to exempt developers from having to supply social rented housing.

However a so-far relatively little-debated change to planning law, set to be included in the bill, could make it much harder to police design quality through the planning system.

The proposed change was initially outlined in the government’s economic productivity plan, entitled Fixing the Foundations, which was published during the summer.

This stated that automatic planning permission could be given for “suitable” sites included in a register of brownfield land.

In effect, this would result in the partial introduction of a US-style zoning system, where development is granted in principle.

While the UK has forward plans that allocate sites for particular types of development, actual permission rests on a planning decision, usually made by a local authority.

The productivity plan states that this existing, discretionary system leads to a “slow, expensive and uncertain process”.

Planning minister Brandon Lewis told a meeting of the House of Commons communities and local government (CLG) select committee last month that the move was designed to boost the ability of developers, particularly small and medium-sized builders, to raise finance.

However the government’s proposal has sparked fears that councils’ albeit oft-criticised ability to influence design quality will be further hamstrung.

“We are pleased that the government has recognised the importance of getting houses built,” says Andrew Forth, policy and public affairs manager at the RIBA, pointing out that the institute has backed the construction of 250,000 homes a year.

However he is concerned that there is a “lack of clarity” from the DCLG about how the new system will work.

Forth worries that the initiative may see a repeat of the problems that have bedevilled the recently introduced permitted development rights regime for office-to-housing conversions.

The capital’s local government umbrella body London Councils published a report in August highlighting the sub-standard housing conditions that the new fast-track regime has delivered.

In Croydon, where there has been a rash of office-to-residential conversions under the new rules, it says that “almost none” of the approximately 1,700 homes created have any private or communal amenity space. The report voices similar concerns about the conversion of Islington’s Archway Tower.

“The nature of the homes that have been delivered has been very poor quality,” says Forth.

“They don’t have to meet any real standards beyond minimum safety. The danger is that what gets built is not that great. ”

Richard Blythe, head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says a lot will hang on the government’s definition of what is a “suitable” brownfield site, on which topic Lewis was vague when he appeared before the select committee.

The RTPI has expressed concerns that much brownfield land is unsuitable because it is in remote locations. And even if the land is suitable in principle for building on, this doesn’t mean the scale of development will be.

For Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, the acid test is how much detail will be reserved for the second and more detailed stage of the process.

He argues that design is key to the principle of whether a development should be granted permission or not. “The principle of development is related to whether or not it is good design,” he says.

Hank Dittmar, the US-born former chief executive of The Prince’s Foundation, and a BD columnist, says his country’s zoning system was introduced in the 1920s as part of a movement to separate housing from noxious industrial uses, which in this country led to the system of use class orders. The zoning system has helped to create the bland, monocultural suburban environments which have become such a hallmark of US cities.

Dittmar believes that zoning can play a “limited role”, such as on brownfield sites where councils have failed to put forward a local plan.

However, he warns about the “danger” that a wider roll-out of the zones will result in grassroots democracy being bypassed with a knock-on impact on the quality of design and a watering down of local character.

Anyway, he points out, the need to obtain other environmental and building regulation permits means that zoning doesn’t save much time.

Lewis told MPs that even though permission might be granted in principle, councils would still be able to control the detailed aspects, such as design, via negotiation with the developer.

But this is too late in the process, counters Ellis. “When something is agreed in principle it becomes almost impossible to oppose on issues of design,” he says.

At the very least, he believes the government should have consulted on such a momentous change, such as by publishing a white paper, before moving to legislate.

“If we are going to move to a US system we need more of a public debate,” says Ellis.

Given the pace that the government is moving on planning reform, that debate will need to start quickly.

Are they right?  Only to a point.  None of the above commentators seem to have read the Housing and Planning bill itself which makes clear the technical details are the same as reserved matters on an outline planning consent.

What this means is that ‘permission in principle’ is the same as allocating a site for uses and an amount of development and then granting outline planning permission with all matters reserved for this.  Does this lead to a diminution of good design with schemes of small units and no amenity space for example like PD office conversions?  Well that depends totally on the work the LPA and/or the developer has done before that consent.  If the application is for a certain quantum of development they need to be sure that it will fit within certain zoning parameters, that there will be the roads and open space and public services and infrastructure capacity.  Ideally this is done through a design, an illustrative masterplan.  On uncomplicated sites, or if you lack resources or are just plain lazy you can apply certain norms such as an .exaction rate’ (such as 35%) for the proportion of the site used for roads, public services, technical plots and open space, and then apply a rule of thumb such as FAR (floorspace area ratio) for the built up area permitted for the land remaining.  The trouble is when you dont design you get the risk of monculture of uses and monotony of form.  A proper masterplan will plan for a mix of uses and variety of forms and then rules and parameters per superblock and then parcel to ensure these are delivered on the ground.  None of this is precluded by a zoning and subdivision system.  Indeed next month I shall be taking a study party of a client around many sites in Germant, Denmark and the Netherlands where outstanding urban forms have been developed by this method.  The real risk of the Housing and Planning Bill of a lack of resources for design, good masterplanning and form based zoning to go with it, which make a zoning and subdivision system work.

 

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