A new study, winner of the Royal Town Planning Institute‘s Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence, has highlighted how housing developments can undergo significant changes between securing planning permission and starting on site – and not always for the better. Research lead Hannah Hickman of the University of the West of England discusses this vital but often overlooked area of planning
The aspiration to achieve high quality design outcomes in the delivery of new homes is currently prominent on the political agenda. Most recently, we have seen amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework to strengthen its design focus, a new National Model Design Code and the creation of a new Office for Place to “drive up design standards”.
These initiatives have been heralded by some commentators as signalling “a moment of potential national change” in the relationship between design, planning and development in England.
One aspect of the planning and development process that has hitherto received little attention in relation to ensuring high quality design outcomes has been the world of post-consent: the journey of a development from the point of receiving planning permission (either through outline permission or full planning permission) through to on-site construction, occupation and on-going management. This was the subject explored by this year’s recipient of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence: a team led by Hannah Hickman at the University of the West of England.
Local authority practice in the West of England
Their study, focused principally on local authority practice in the West of England, explored all the steps that can occur post-consent (including the discharge/variation of planning conditions; reserved matters; non-material and minor-material amendments; subsequent planning applications; monitoring; compliance; and, if necessary, enforcement) to evidence the extent to which these steps may result in reductions in design quality and why.
While the research concluded that post-consent is not the fundamental determinant of design quality, it was clear to the team that the way post-consent processes unfold can result in a significant drop in the quality of a scheme between the point at which planning permission is granted, and delivery on the ground.
They found a range of design considerations being impacted post-consent, from design details such as brick choice, materials and window detailing to green infrastructure and landscaping, and, on occasions, substantial scheme reconfiguration and density alterations.
The challenges associated with managing the cumulative impact of multiple changes was particularly problematic for guarding against reductions in design quality.
Some planning officers involved in the study were concerned that developers use post-consent rather opportunistically and described post-consent change as being frustratingly routine and occurring in nearly all schemes, whatever the scale. They described schemes being “value engineered to within an inch of their life” and “regularly watered down” and referred to conversations with developers post-consent that started with phrases such as “this wasn’t what we agreed, guys”. Officers described the initial application process as local authorities “being sold a dream, that actually is a dream”.
In several housing schemes explored by the team, the final delivered development appeared substantially different from the scheme as depicted in the original application documentation, with significant variations having occurred to aspects of schemes often deemed important to the granting of permission in the first place.
Developers, on the other hand, saw the need for post-consent change as not only inevitable but necessary: development viability and the need to respond to the circumstances of a site, once at the delivery stage, were the most common justifications for the need for post-consent changes.
Of course, the research acknowledged that design outcomes achieved in any one individual scheme are inevitably both site- and developer-specific, and negative outcomes are by no means the outcome of every post-consent change sought.
A number of areas for action to improve practice outcomes
The research highlights a number of areas for action to improve practice outcomes in this area.
The first is about ensuring that post-consent is viewed as an integral part of the development process from project inception to on-site delivery, occupation and ongoing management. This is to address the fact that post-consent often falls below the radar of both politicians and systems.
To do this, there is a related, but separate, second set of actions about implementing specific improvements to post-consent processes: a more careful consideration of their effective operation in practical terms to enable officers and developers to see how the process can be altered to lead to better maintenance of quality.
A third set of actions is about effectively resourcing and empowering officers so that they feel they have the resources to best support a development’s journey at post-consent and, importantly, the confidence to assert the need for particular design aspects of a scheme to be maintained to achieve quality outcomes. This is clearly necessary for the previous two suggestions to be meaningfully implemented.
Beyond these more practical and system/resource-related suggestions, there is clearly a need to widen the conversation about development mechanisms and design quality. The research focused predominantly on local authority practice but bringing forward successful – high quality – development is clearly enhanced by successful collaboration between local authorities, communities and developers.
Greater understanding of the post-consent journey from the perspective of all players is needed and, moreover, needed to address wider issues of trust between players best manifested in concerns about whether post-consent change is sought is for legitimate and justifiable reasons.
The research team would welcome any feedback on the research and their findings as part of the need to widen the conversation on this previously under-discussed and under-researched subject.
Read the full study here.
Senior lecturer in planning practice
LinkedIn: UWE Bristol