Is placemaking back on the agenda?

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property, Chelgate Local

Michael is also an Essex County and Harlow District councillor, vice-chairman of the county Development and Regulation Committee and sits on the district Development Management Committee.

Quality design in all its facets and ‘place’ are key streams in the new revised NPPF, including a new chapter 12: “Achieving well-designed places”.  This introduces a different focus for officers and members when considering planning applications, something that they may not yet be prepared for.

The industry does recognise the importance of placemaking and some strive to develop real communities with quality design when planning new developments, to create places where people really want to work and live. It is not unusual for them to then be frustrated when the project comes before committee because their efforts are not recognised by members, or they are simply not understood.

I cannot recall any debates in committee when considering an application about the sense of ‘place’ other than usual negative comments that the proposals look awful and the architecture is wanting. Officers then brief members that design and architecture are subjective and they need to look more at form and context, and the use of space.

It is ultimately members’ responsibility to decide whether the officer’s recommendation is correct and to determine the application. By inference, the revised NPPF must place a further responsibility on officers to ensure members do understand the revised NPPF, can recognise good design and good placemaking.  This may mean members will need more training, but I don’t think many will object to that.

It is a shame that the reference to ‘Garden Cities’ has been removed from the NPPF. This was a concept that councillors did comprehend and perhaps using those principles of quality design across all applications would have been a step forward.

Members do debate elements of a project which could be deemed to relate to placemaking, but councillors do need to have a greater understanding of placemaking as a whole. As such, the revised NPPF adds some new considerations, in addition to the existing:

  • Density, and the effective use of land
  • Town centre vitality
  • Sustainable transport
  • Healthy and safe communities
  • Community engagement

Also inherent in the revised NPPF is community consultation. It encourages applicants to engage with local communities in the pre-application process, where they do not already. It is key that both the ward members and the community are engaged early in the process so applicants can identify local issues and aspirations and tailor their projects accordingly.

The revised NPPF is a step in the right direction in terms of placemaking but it needs to be a joined-up approach. Officers and members need the training and experience to execute the vision the government has for the communities of tomorrow.