Design Quality Outside the Planning System?

Given that the current planning system hasn’t generally managed to produce new housing of inspirational and enduring quality, it is perhaps odd that my biggest concern about Community Right to Build is to do with design. It’s true that planners are under-resourced in most departments, and especially in design expertise, but they have managed to deliver on the sustainability-inspired target of increased density and it could easily be argued that despite its conservative nature, the volume-house-builders’ product has improved somewhat over the last 15 years, visually at least, under the influence of local design-guidance. If any CRTB developments do get off the ground, who will ensure that they are done well, given that they will happen outside the planning system?

Well, it seems clear that sponsors of a succesful CRTB project will be passionate about their village, and will want to add to it with a sympathetic and high-quality development. I will suggest in later posts that architects as a whole don’t have much recent experience of adding to villages, but I really believe it’s possible to do so in a way that is sympathetic and complementary, without resorting to pastiche. One of the most attractive features of most villages is that their history can be read in their architectural styles; wouldn’t it be good to add to this heritage, with something contemporary?

How could this be achieved? Selecting the right architect will be key – either one that can demonstrate the appropriate experience in rural design, or more likely, one that displays the right attitude and interest in the challenge of adding to a village. A design competition might be one way to find the right team. The RIBA ran high-profile competitions for village additions at Elmswell in Suffolk and Lawrenny in Pembrokeshire (more on these later) and various tiers of government agency have mentoring and design-quality remits that might come into play – CABE, the soon-to-be defunct East of England Development Agency, the Greater Norwich Development Partnership. It might even be that the best way forward will be to use the infrastructure of the existing planning system, having set aside the key barrier to a CRTB project, namely the pre-supposition against developing outside the settlement boundary and the uses likely to be permitted. The Planning Officers’ Society suggest this approach in their consultation response on the CRTB proposals:

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