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Can planning design policies adapt to pandemic changes?

Words:
Fabrizio Matillana

RIBAJ Rising Star 2020 Fabrizio Matillana, principal urban designer for Enfield Council, explains how planning is responding to the pandemic by moves such as introducing design trackers and consultations, and how architects can engage with these approaches

View of the plans for Meridian Water, a redevelopment area in Enfield.
View of the plans for Meridian Water, a redevelopment area in Enfield. Credit: Squint/Opera, KCA and Periscope

As an architect working in the public sector, I advise on schemes to deliver better places. Policies define the ambition for high quality and other planning obligations in a local planning authority (LPA). This brings up a tension: how adaptable are current policies, specifically design policies, to meet drastic sudden changes brought by the pandemic?

The latest round of planning reforms proposed in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Model Design Code offers promise in this regard, as it introduces design tools for planners to define design expectations and requirements. The new Good Quality Homes for All Londoners guidance, currently in pre-consultation, and emerging guidelines from other LPAs, notably Tower Hamlets’ high-density supplementary planning document (SPD), are embedding in policy the design needs of high-density living that the pandemic has revealed.

However, there is a lag, born from the policymaking process itself, which requires scoping, evidence-base gathering, testing and implementation. By the time policies are introduced, decisions on applications have been made that may inherit expired practices.

Can homes be designed now in good conscience that do not offer decent work-from arrangements, or must this change come when newer housing supplementary planning guidance (SPG) establishes this shift as the norm? From a market perspective, there is already an incentive as residents are increasingly demanding this – but, from a planning perspective, which uses best practice and evidence to inform policy, it is a longer route for change. Can there be a middle ground?

  • 85ha redevelopment area at Meridian Water aerial view, partially along the river Lee.
    85ha redevelopment area at Meridian Water aerial view, partially along the river Lee. Credit: Blackpoint, KCA and Periscope.
  • The plans aim to encourage biodiversity around Meridian Water Brooks Park.
    The plans aim to encourage biodiversity around Meridian Water Brooks Park. Credit: Periscope
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Cycles and codes

Strategic projects require certainty, due to their long cycles of funding and development. Strategic policy and designation offer this certainty of development principle. I work on Phase 1 of the Meridian Water project, an 85ha site delivering 10,000 homes in the next 25 years. Its strategic designation is the Upper Lee Valley Opportunity Area, and it also has an Area Action Plan where its vision has been consulted and adopted. Enfield Council adopted a ‘master developer’ approach, giving it more control in vision, land assemblage and development, with added risk. While this secures long-term intent, design work increases risk which requires strategic design management tools, such as design codes.

In the case of Meridian Water, it has been a balancing act of setting clear aspirational development principles that will inform outline consents and reserved matter applications, yet still allowing detailed design to complete the broad picture the code defined. This room for manoeuvring is where the tension of approved principle and sudden externalities arises – not just in the changes in lifestyle brought about by this pandemic, but in rising construction costs, funding mechanisms, broader site assemblage logistics and market volatility. These all influence decisions to revisit agreed principles.

In long cycles this is inevitable, and deviations from codes can be negotiated. However, these most often relate to parameters (eg agreed height or frontage variations) rather than to upgrading a design aspiration. As codes come from a process of agreement, despite their best endeavours to establish a vision, they can lead to resistance to change. A surge in needing to work from home, for example, would require design changes to layout, which have cost implications. Another example is the demand for higher sustainability targets that align with current climate emergency action, despite long-term goals that may have been set beforehand.

For Meridian Water, the carbon-neutral targets are bold and there is the organisational means to meet them, but not all projects are of Meridian Water’s ambition and delivery structure. Working with codes requires heavy resources to develop them, professional input to devise them and design officers which can defend them during the negotiations of deviations. This last point may offer a hint on how to address the middle ground of strategic certainty of designations and built-in certainty of design codes.

Professional judgement

Working within planning performance agreements (PPAs), reference to best practice or exemplar precedents is used to convey the meaning of high quality. While design policy and codes set parameters, the discretionary planning system invites discussions that can yield high quality as part of the negotiations. This is where professional judgement is required and where my decade of experience in architecture has become an asset.

For example, with high-density projects, multi-level communal amenity is encouraged, discussed via precedents, to be incorporated into schemes. The goal is to have the applicant’s brief, public realm and amenity policies and a shared expectation for high quality aligned to lead to a better place at high density.

Besides precedents, in order to be nimble in responding to proposed changes, I have introduced design trackers, collaborating with Public Practice Associates from Hounslow Council, and used them to keep design advice consistent and to highlight outstanding issues. At times, applicants have required clarifications on the basis of a particular comment. For example, what is the policy requirement for maximising dual-aspect accommodation? In response, policy notes that makes links between a design comment, local and GLA design policies. Defining this golden thread is necessary should a scheme be refused and taken to appeal. At the end of the day, advice based on precedent is not evidence based, and at appeals determinations are based on policy not how well the scheme matches a Pinterest project.

To engage in policy changes, it is essential to be part of consultations. Urban Design London provides an open forum to debate collegially and give feedback directly to policymakers, informing their work. This is available alongside the formal routes of consultation. While this is part of the slow process of policymaking, it is necessary to be able to work in multiple gears to advocate for high quality, with precedent-based and consistent comments backed by current policy, as well as engaging consultations to inform new policy.

PPA Design Tracker developed by Enfield Council to improve planning processes.
PPA Design Tracker developed by Enfield Council to improve planning processes. Credit: Enfield Council

Design research for evidence base

My move to the public sector has allowed me to work on this design advisory role that has a broad agency, but has the same tensions as professional architectural practice: a sense of slow uptake by developers or local authorities on changes in work and life patterns and how these impact design quality.

Working for a local planning authority, however, has revealed that a slow process is a certain process and architects should engage with the debate and preparation of evidence that develops change. A middle ground is possible, but there must be the project structure, policy tools to facilitate that nimbleness and the design officer to make judgement calls, as well as developers keen to engage.

Design research comes naturally to architects, but the planning profession excels in the advocacy and publication of evidence-based reports and lobbying government. This should be a lesson to architects aiming to inform those policies that are perceived as limiting their designs. Also, come and join the other side of the table for the good fight!

Fabrizio Matillana is an architect and principal urban designer for Enfield Council. He is a RIBAJ Rising Stars winner 2020

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