Ensuring Quality Through Planning

Friday 6 April 2018

How is London ensuring that it gets the right sort of quality design as it sets out its mission and targets for ‘good growth’? A special think tank held at Conran & Partners’ Bermondsey office last week sought to find out.

For Hackney’s design manager Ken Rorrison, the borough regeneration team’s 25-strong design advisory group chaired by Fred Manson is a key ally in this regard, ensuring that in its goal of direct-delivering some 4,000 homes over 10 years, high quality design is a key consideration. And although the push toward smaller schemes (encouraged in the draft London Plan) will prove a challenge for the cross-subsidy model, the principles of ‘locking in’ high levels of detail, both through Planning and Tender, helps mitigate the quality issues of design and build, as does retaining the architects post-planning to reduce ‘wiggle room’ for contractors.

The GLA, moreover, has initiated a programme of 50 Mayor’s Design Advocates – several of whom were at the think tank – in order to recognise the role design has to play in good growth, said GLA senior project officer Sarah Considine. This she defined as growth which is sustainable, inclusive and high quality, with the MDAs offering a breadth of skills and assisting on formal reviews and supportive measures. The focus of their work will be where the Mayor is investing or on mayoral land – but there is also a broader role in recognising that design review provision across London is ‘patchy’, Considine added, bolstering it where appropriate. But it was also about design review having the ability to interface at various points along the programme of a scheme’s development, perhaps at earlier workshop sessions on matters such as site capacity, constraints, or opportunities. The MDAs will also assist in developing policy and providing research to inform guidance emerging from the London Plan.

The key thing in providing design review, said Design South East director Chris Lamb, is to say: ‘what do you need, how can we help?’, rather than the misperception of a bunch of outsiders coming in to tell locals what to do. ‘Really. it’s a unique opportunity for collaborative dialogue’, he said. It means engaging early and consistently, and should be constructive, but equally when a challenge is needed, this must be done properly – such as on occasion suggesting that a design team is strengthened.

Camden’s strategic lead of regeneration and place, Richard Wilson, said he had been surprised at the resistance to design review when he arrived at Camden almost a decade ago, with many staff feeling it might undermine their roles and responsibilities. But time and the NPPF’s stipulation that it needed to be in place changed things, and a panel was initiated 18 months ago that has proved helpful. ‘We have found the process working very well but it is absolutely not a substitute for in-house skills and you still need those teams as well as design review’, he said.

Tower Hamlets, meanwhile, said Sripriya Sudhakar, team leader of the place shaping team, has had a panel for over 30 years, with the difference being its very local nature and consequent high level of understanding of the context. Its main challenge is the number of applications in the borough, with schemes in Whitechapel and South Quay testing its resources. A large proportion of schemes that get refused in the borough have design as a reason for that refusal. 

The success of Newham’s panel, said its head of regeneration, Robin Cooper, lies in ‘taking members with you’, as well as ensuring that the system is self-financing. ‘I’ve yet to find a developer at the end of the process who says it’s a waste of time and a waste of money’. Cooper added that it was important to highlight design success through simple trust-building things like an annual bus tour to celebrate schemes, comparing them to initial sketches where appropriate. Newham’s head of planning Amanda Reid added that authorities needed to be ‘vehement’ in their desire to safeguard design integrity, acting against ‘incremental erosion of design’ through enforcement if necessary.

Wandsworth, meanwhile, has had a design review panel for five years, which its assistant director for planning and transport, Tim Cronin, said can be helpful in providing an alternative design critique to that of the more established Conservation Area Committees. Tobias Goevert, head of regeneration and design at LB Harrow, moreover, said its newly established design review panel has a remit beyond pure review including training Harrow’s members – and is working with colleagues internally to ensure that council-led infrastructure projects such as schools were also receiving appropriate design scrutiny.

Consultant and Mayor’s Design Advocate Andy von Bradsky said it was encouraging that the Housing White Paper made reference to design quality, and the NPPF is now reinforcing that position. Von Bradsky was pushing hard within government on the issue of design quality, and it was true that the subject has risen up the agenda – even if there was work to do on this front convincing ministers. But small sites of the types advocated for housing development in the London Plan are ‘a particular challenge’ for review and one gap was around community engagement. ‘If development was better designed in their areas, communities would support it’, said von Bradsky. How does design review embrace the view of local people? There is some resource for hard-pressed local authorities in the form of the Planning Delivery Fund – but is this enough? 

One of the regular figures in design review is Metropolitan Workshop director Neil Deely as chair of three and vice chair of one. All had their different angles or accents, he said, and were necessarily more ‘discursive’ than in the days of the Royal Fine Art Commission or CABE. ‘It has to be more critical friend and less police force’, he said. But it was heartening to hear from those whose schemes have had value added from design review sessions, said Deely; a planning tool rather than an additional resource burden for clients, with the most enlightened clients and applicants seeing its value, just as the good designers know how to deal with advice given.

So, what of the developer’s perspective? Countryside Property’s partnerships associate director forland and new business, Simon Jeffrey, said design quality is ‘essential’ in all its work, adding value and making good commercial sense in what is essentially a competition with other developers. Yet design is the most subjective part of the process, said Jeffery. Sadiq Khan’s ‘Good Growth by Design’ is an interesting concept but the question still remains over who decides what quality is. On the retention of architects, he added that finding the right balance is key as some architects are good at the conceptual side but might not be so good at detail and delivery and vice-versa. Deely responded that most architects can and are capable of both, and that the separation of pre-planning concept work and then handing over, as well as the separation between developers’ planning and delivery teams often results in poor connectivity between the two, with quality always suffering as a result.

How could the issue be taken forward? Perhaps, suggested Sowmya Parthasarathy, associate director at Arup and Mayor’s Design Advocate, the value of good design is not understood enough, and requires something of a refresh of a CABE report on the subject, focusing on the tangible economic uplift from projects for the wider area. ‘Something like that could be of huge value’, said Parthasarathy, ‘just so people begin to understand that investing in good design actually pays dividends to everyone’. Tibbalds’ director Hilary Satchwell added that we should think more robustly that design and policy can work together, and perhaps that panels could have a community role, even held in the open with others part of the discussion. Or, as Chris Lamb suggested, there should be more panels looking at completed schemes to feed learning back into policy in order to understand outcomes better.

The community needs to be taken along too, said Catherine Jenkins, head of planning and creative strategy at Pilbrow and Partners, with communication of good design particularly important at this point in view of the substantial growth targets in the London Plan and implications for densification across the city. The Mayor’s Design Advocates have a role to promote good design for Londoners and what has been achieved for Londoners – especially important given the huge amount of impact on people’s day to day lives. Robust guidance that is consistent across boroughs would also help, said Manisha Patel, partner at PRP and Mayor’s Design Advocate – the consultation and design review process needs to be robust and flexible to help unlock some of the smaller sites that are costly to develop and can be extremely complicated. The process should not deter attracting smaller developers due to long drawn out reviews. But the wider issue is perhaps the industry’s poor reputation, coupled to the fact that councillors can be easily persuaded by locals. And one way that could be improved, suggested Child Graddon Lewis director Simon Child, is in communicating design quality early into schools. ‘School children are sponges’, he said. ‘They get very excited when you go into schools and talk about design, and then they go home and tell their parents. So if we want to influence the design industry over the next 5-10 years that is one area where we could all be more active to improve design.’

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly
@davidntaylor 

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