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Sustainable design should be at the heart of the planning system, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 03 Aug 2017 | 9:43 am | 2 min. read

ANALYSIS: A recent speech by transport minister John Hayes on the role of design should be seen as a call to arms to reinvigorate the English planning system.

Speaking at the recent ''Backing Beauty' event, hosted by the ResPublica think tank, the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, Hayes dismissed what he sees as the current preoccupation with utility at the expense of beauty in design. The decisions of what he sweepingly generalised as "callous architects, crass planners and careless politicians" have, according to Hayes "subsumed aesthetics" over the past 50 years - at the ultimate expense of sustainability.

It's good to have debate and headlines that make people stop and think, and Hayes has certainly achieved this. But while design quality is often in the eye of the beholder, design is far more than the external aesthetic. Whatever the style, materials or form, a holistic approach is required to place-making in terms of quality and sustainability.

In his speech, Hayes said that he would be "setting out in detail how our roads and railway sectors go about design schemes in a harmonious way" later this year. This will consider "both the processes by which judgments and decisions are made as well as the principles which inform those decisions".

According to the minister, there are "no good reasons why we cannot continue to build beautiful buildings and public infrastructure ". As transport minister, one of his goals is to "make it an uplifting experience to navigate the roads, stations and other public infrastructure in our country".

Hayes' speech is well-timed. At a time when the Raynsford Review of the planning system is ongoing, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is looking at longer time horizons and strategic planning, and we seek to address housing and community needs in a changing political and economic environment, there is a real opportunity to create a positive way forward that delivers the best of architecture, planning and political policy and decision-making.

So, what can we take from the profile-raising that the minister has created, and what can we recommend to address the perceived ills?

First, by setting an example in strategic policy and guidance, the government can drive change at the strategic level in a spatial context. Similarly, reviewing and positively changing the levers and thresholds that drive environmental and sustainable standards at the national level will help to create a level playing field in terms of expenditure, removing the 'drive to the bottom' approach decried by Hayes.

The existing valuation and 'green book' justification criteria for major projects drive short-term rather than whole life economic and ecosystems assessment, and this should be addressed. At the local level, wider genuine engagement and inclusion in development planning is essential.

If we all get behind what we could interpret from the minister's speech as a call to arms, we could deliver a reinvigorated and resources planning system that supports the success of the UK and delivers a socially and environmentally cohesive environment, putting us back at the lead of positive planning on the world stage.

Design decisions must seek to influence, create and perpetuate an inclusive, social, environmental, functional and aesthetic design approach that will endure and adapt. This is at the heart of best practice, and a true representation of professional planning.

Jan Bessell is a planning expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.