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Out of their depth on planning

A lightly-briefed Lords’ Built Environment Committee skated over the surface in its opening look at the Farrell Review and planning in general

‘I’m afraid that’s a little off-piste, really.’ Chair of the Lords’ Built Environment Committee Baroness O’Cathain, which convened this week in Parliament to quiz the DCLG on planning, the Farrell Review and government built environment policy in general, had obviously decided Lord Clement-Jones’ question to DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain had diverged from the point – but I’d say it was actually bang on the button.

The question followed Quartermain’s meandering explanation of the notion of ‘placemaking’, emphasising that – due to the planning process – there was a ‘lot of good building out there’. This was primarily driven, he suggested, by paragraphs 56-68 of the National Planning Policy Framework, promoting ‘good design’. What Clement-Jones had asked was this: ‘To what extent is good design or a sense of place subjective or objective?’ And he qualified it with an example. ‘If we were building a new Parliament and someone put in an application for a building just like this one, how would we meet those (good design) criteria?’

I have to say, there’s something terribly charming about a House of Lords committee. But the chair’s polite putdown, which raised a laugh, highlighted two things; not only the genteel spirit of the whole affair but the need for the Lords’ to possess a working understanding of such issues if the DCLG is to be rigorously put through its paces. As it was, I don’t think Quartermain or DCLG director of planning Ruth Stanier, Building Regs director Bob Ledsome and especially DCMS’ Gill Graham (who I’m sure just read from a script), even broke a sweat. Clement-Jones’ remark in fact went to the core of what ‘good design’ is and, importantly, asked who’s in the position to arbitrate? It felt like a moment of philosophical clarity in a session generally marked by far more baseline questioning.

Now, a child-like innocence of matters need not be a bad thing. The committee, set to report to the House in March 2016, and made up of a dozen or so members, did manage to draw out some key facts. Question: Do local authorities have the resources to carry out government policy? Answer: 82% of LAs now have a Local Plan in place. Question: How does the government co-ordinate a housing crisis and will the architecture portfolio’s move from DCMS to DCLG facilitate it? Answer: ‘There’s a strong connect between architecture, design and delivery…we want to invigorate the Cabinet Housing Task Force.’ Question: Don’t we, like Scotland, need a national spatial plan? Answer: ‘The government is against a national strategy but committed to a bottom-up approach delivered via Local Plans.’

But it seemed there was something of a disconnect of the issues by the committee, which meant DCLG got off with generalised explanations rather than giving a detailed qualification of matters. The panel didn’t seem to be aware of the distinction between planning guidance and Building Control – one member asked if any legal measures were in place ‘if something wasn’t built as drawn’ – and the National Infrastructure Plan seemed to get confused with planning guidance, certainly with regard to energy, requiring Ledsome to explain. In all this, pertinent questions as to whether we were in any position to meet social housing need – now or in the future, given recent policy decisions like ‘Right to Buy’ – did not visit the DCLG panel, and problems like the gaping planning loophole of viability statements, as highlighted in the Guardian recently, weren’t even mentioned. That said, land speculation was intimated at: Stanier pointed out that 20% of national planning applications fall out and don’t appear as built projects, leading her to concede, not surprisingly, that planning might merely be ‘sought to secure land value uplift.’

Given its recent mandate in the polls, the government seems intent on striking while the iron’s hot. George Osborne’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ blueprint is already attempting to re-write the planning rules in urban areas, so one can only hope that the Lords’ committee, counter to the old ‘old dog, new tricks’ maxim, can deal with the steep learning curve its members will have to go through between now and the publication of its findings next year. Outside the committee room meanwhile, I heard whisper of the government’s intention to sneak through removal of all exemptions to office-to-residential conversion the day before recess; next Monday, in fact. True or not, the committee should be aware that with current planning law, it is really is dealing with a moving target.

The panel will meet the Bartlett’s Peter Bishop and Farrell’s partner Max Farrell next week; but in case you’re wondering, the chief planner’s answer to the new Parliament design conundrum was: 'Design is about functionality…architects consider that how a building works is absolutely crucial…you can combine aesthetics with good functionality.’ It was a textbook response that glanced straight off the issue: a state of affairs which, unless the committee is gifted with greater levels of scrutiny, we could well be seeing a lot more of.