A Fast-track for Beauty – Learning from the Past

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Location: England

Tom Looker, Director in our Bracknell office, evaluates the opportunity the Planning For The Future White Paper offers to bring beauty to new housing schemes while also achieving the numbers required.

Tom Looker, Director – Design

It is hard not to be inspired by the notion of a ‘fast-track for beauty’. The tantalising prospect of genuinely meeting the nation’s housing need whilst creating beautiful places.

Now well publicised, this has come a step closer under Proposal 14 of the Planning For The Future White Paper, intended to ‘incentivise and accelerate high quality development which reflects local character and preferences’ and rolls forward one of the key propositions of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report – Living with Beauty, released earlier this year.

The proposition is three-fold:

1) changing the national policy context to give positive advantage to schemes that comply with local design guides and codes;

2) masterplan and site specific code are agreed as a condition of the permission in principle for significant development (growth area) identified in the plan; and

3) using ‘pattern books’ as a means of supporting ‘gentle intensification’ of our towns and cities as part of widening and changing the nature of permitted development.

Pattern books

This last proposition is intriguing. Recognised as helping to deliver some of our most popular and successful places – Bath (pictured above), Belgravia and Bournville are cited by Robert Jenrick – pattern books are an intrinsic part of our townscape history, but have been much neglected in our recent past – until now.

Living with Beauty envisages local authorities align detailed design policy interventions with provably popular form-based codes and pattern books as a means to embed design quality.

However, the advocated use of pattern books within the White Paper is rather more limited. In areas suitable for development (renewal areas) pattern books are identified as the means for allowing the pre-approval of popular and replicable designs through permitted development.

But why constrain the use of pattern books in this way? Undoubtedly, the golden era of pattern books is associated with rampant development of the Georgian period and ensured the Georgian style pervades our built-up areas in the UK and beyond – with little regard to local vernacular.

Through this prism, some commentators have voiced concerns about perpetuating an approach that is backward looking, identikit and validates a dumbing down of design within renewal areas.

The reality is that pattern books can be, and have historically been, much more diverse than this. Encompassing everything from treatises to precedent books (inspiration) to catalogues illustrating standard parts. A contemporary interpretation of pattern books could provide a powerful tool beyond policing a broadened permitted development agenda.

A toolkit for growth

The White Paper makes clear that design codes are considered the primary tool for raising design quality in significant development areas (growth areas) and that these could comprise simple ‘co-ordinating codes’ with more developed codes providing certainty later in the process.

Whilst this staged approach is designed to be commensurate, codes that focus on the essentials and provide a balance between prescription and flexibility are widely acknowledged as being the most robust, particularly where site specific.

Herein lies the paradox, codes that are meant to provide certainty and clarity, are best when they are flexible. Yet clarity of specification, clear direction and prescription is fundamental to many stakeholders, including those looking to purchase or bring forward a site.

In this context, site specific pattern books should not be disregarded given their potential for certainty, clarity and distinctiveness.

Moreover, this approach provides huge potential for larger development companies to build at speed, and smaller development companies to enter the market and facilitate the move towards modern methods of construction being deployed at scale – a real fast-track for beauty.

For more information about what is discussed in this article, please contact Tom Looker. To find out more about Pegasus Group’s services, please contact us.