The Mayor is in a unique position to champion quality at this post-permission stage, and to support boroughs to see quality through to delivery. Experience from the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group's (MDAG) involvement in publicly funded capital delivery projects, as well as development management, demonstrates that good results are more often achieved if a design team is involved from start to finish. However, there is no consistent approach to securing the continuity of design teams, or ensuring that the quality of tender documentation or planning approvals is carried through to delivery.
A planning authority is required to assess the design quality of a proposed building or public space during a planning application process. However, what happens after consent is achieved can be crucial in the final built result of that approval.
Changes to designs, post-planning consent are often allowable as ‘minor amendments’. However, even minor changes can have a substantial effect on design quality and visual impact. The cumulative effect of amendments can often be significant and should be reviewed holistically when considering such circumstances.
It is widely recognised that there are often more changes after the granting of planning permission, which are not always fully considered by the planning authority. Sometimes these changes are to save costs, such as reducing landscape, omitting special features and substituting-in lower quality materials. Such design changes may be allowable because a lack of design detail within the consented scheme provides ‘loopholes’ for a developer or builder to dilute design quality.
Other designs are altered to make schemes commercially viable. These can be the result of a tactical development approach sometimes dubbed ‘dumbing down’, where a high quality design is presented to achieve permission, only to substitute an inferior scheme using another designer. This can be exacerbated when sites are traded with approval, leaving the delivery responsible to others who have not been involved in the process. There are concerns that poor quality drawings and a lack of supporting visual information can result in little understanding by the planning authority as to what is being approved.
Many projects don’t resemble the consented scheme when constructed.
To tackle these issues, a number of approaches to this could be implemented:
- A system of granting ‘personal planning consent’ for particular types of application could be considered further. This would encourage development of the site according to the consent, and seek to disincentivise profit being generated by a ‘piece of paper’ that is traded by speculators.
- A scenario that often results in the final delivery of the project being divorced from the planning process. If planning consent were granted for the benefit of the applicant only, it would generate a clear understanding of design quality and delivery.
- Building in incentives to retain the same design team beyond planning would help carry through the design intent established at planning stage. It is generally accepted that planning conditions or Section 106 Agreements should not be unduly used to protect the continued involvement of a particular architectural practice for final delivery in a way that is uncompetitive. However, consideration should be given to securing their ongoing involvement as a condition of consent, at the very least as ‘design reviewer’.
- Improving the clarity and strength in the wording of planning permissions and associated conditions would lessen the opportunity to ‘dumb down’ a consented design. Routinely, visuals provided at planning stage, for example, are indicative, yet form the public face of the planning consent – particularly for outline and hybrid applications. Encouraging greater levels of design information to be provided as part of the consent, and fewer, more strongly enforced planning conditions should be considered. This could be supported by a shared resource to assist boroughs with the precise drafting of planning conditions so that they clearly encapsulate design quality.
- Improving the robustness when discharging planning conditions and improving enforcement are also of key importance. There are cases where the local planning authority is under pressure to discharge conditions in order to get returning approvals ‘off the desk’. Conditions should only be discharged when the same scrutiny is applied as to the main application.
- Local planning authorities should be encouraged to find the courage and determination to make more active use of enforcement powers to protect design quality. This would send a message to the development and construction industry that design quality needs to be defined at planning application stage, and adhered to.
To carry out the above, good quality design advice needs to be available within the borough, to maintain the design intentions when the original planning permission was granted.
To retain design quality through to delivery, the Mayor should:
- Include in the next iteration of the London Plan a policy to encourage the use of fewer, more strongly enforced planning conditions, so that design quality is built into the planning consent and is not subject to revision.
- Champion the sharing of robust planning conditions and S106 clauses to secure quality, and explore the feasibility of establishing an online Conditions Wiki for use by local planning authorities.
- Promote the use of S106 clauses to ring fence resource for design input into the project, should the original design team not be retained, or the site is sold on.
* GLA analysis based on a sample of planning applications referred to the Mayor 2012-14.