The 2011 Localism Act allowed referendums to be called by local communities over planning policies. By adopting Neighbourhood Development plans, communities could help to shape future development. They still had to meet the requirement for new homes but the decisions about what those homes look like and where they are built could be decided from the bottom up rather than top down. As a result, building targets have actually been exceeded.
More than 400 successful neighbourhood planning referendums have now taken place across England. Producing a local plan and winning support for it is certainly a challenge – especially when it is not done under the auspices of a town or parish council. But the Government does offer technical assistance for those plucky enough to have a go.
Alok Sharma, the Housing Minister, has accepted that if new homes are attractive they are more likely to be popular than “soulless developments that ultimately destroy the character of a local area”. Of course this needs to be followed up with more clarity. Often planners and developers merely talk about “good design” – but no doubt the architects of the most appalling brutalist tower blocks felt they were providing “good design”.
For most people “good design” in housing means that new homes should beautiful and traditional – terraced streets and mansion squares rather than tower blocks. That was promised in the Conservative Manifesto. The Government must find ways to deliver on it in order for the housing supply to be dramatically increased in a politically acceptable way.
As Sharma has said, local plans can help make these wishes a reality:
“I see plans driven by local people with a vested interest in the quality of design for the place they live in as an incredibly valuable tool to achieve good design and local engagement. Since 2012, more than 2,200 groups have started the neighbourhood planning process in areas covering nearly 13 million people. In some areas, neighbourhood planning groups are keen to ensure that good design does happen in practice.”
The Old Market Quarter Neighbourhood Development Plan in Bristol shows what can be done. It says that “new development must demonstrate beautiful design that is appropriate to Old Market Quarter, its history and setting.” The document sets out what that means pretty clearly – in terms of height limits and active frontages.
Here are few quotes from the design code:
“Apart from industrial buildings, external walls should be faced in stone, brick or render; timber, plastic and metal sheathing are not appropriate….Stone should be bathstone ashlar or pennant split face rubble or similar to match examples that exist in the neighbourhood…
“Pitched roof coverings should be natural slate, clay plain tiles or clay double roman tiles. Use of artificial slate and concrete plain tiles or interlocking tiles should be avoided. Plastics and UPVC should not be used for visible roof components….
“Chimneys should be of brick and no less than three bricks in width and two bricks in breadth with tops finished with at least six courses of corbelled bricks….
“Windows should be framed in painted wood or self-coloured aluminium. Vertical sliding sash or side hung opening lights are preferred….
“Door canopies and porches are encouraged….
Traditional design is also encouraged for new shops. There is also a ban on shutters which:
“…have a negative impact upon the area in many ways. They encourage tagging graffiti, create a negative impression of the area, when closed they make the shop ‘dead’ in terms of visual advertising and they can make a street feel unsafe to people using the night time businesses (especially relevant to Old Market Quarter). An abundance of metal roller shutters tends to be associated with areas of high crime rates and low prosperity, in every respect they are just bad for trade.”
The plan was adopted in the referendum with 88 per cent support.
Of course some might feel it is over-prescriptive. Others might prefer more clarity on proportions and ratios – the sort of requirements for Nansledan the development in Cornwall (pictured) by the Prince of Wales.
My main point though is that Local Neighbourhood Forums need to make the best use of the powers they have. Just making bland references to “good design” – or not mentioning it all – is a missed opportunity. Communities need to feel they can welcome new building with confidence.