Farrell last week launched his review of architecture and the built environment, which was commissioned in January 2013 by culture minister Ed Vaizey. The review said: "Our planning system has become too reactive and relies on development control, which forces local authority planners to spend their time firefighting rather than thinking creatively about the future shape and form of villages, towns and cities."
Speaking at the launch of the review, Farrell said that councils currently often "drive a coach and horses" through their own development plans when determining planning applications. Farrell said that resources should be transferred away from development control to strategic planning, enabling the predetermination of many issues which he claimed are currently considered separately for every planning application.
The review said: "Proactive planning would free up valuable time for local authority planners to develop masterplans and design codes which are supported by local communities, whilst reinvigorating the planning profession and its public perception". The review also suggested the greater use of "zoning" arrangements, where mass, height and uses of development are decided at an early stage of development.
Farrell said: "Under-resourced planning departments spend their time dealing with the raft of issues that are open to negotiation from the outset for every planning application." He added: "I think there are wonderful people working in planning trying to make a system work that is not working." Despite his claim that the current planning system is too reactive, Farrell pointed to examples in Brent, Croydon, Birmingham and Manchester, where he said good masterplanning is already taking place. His review said: "With strong leadership, proactive planning can be done at many different levels by local enterprise partnerships, city authorities, local authorities and neighbourhood forums without adding layers of policies."
But Farrell’s characterisation of the current planning system as reactive was challenged by planning silk Richard Harwood QC, of Thirty Nine Essex Street. He told Planning: "It seems to me that our current development management system is all about proactive planning. The review seems to assume that an application currently goes in and nobody has any baseline to judge it by. It is not portraying the current system properly." He added that Hong Kong has a zoning system, but that the detail of applications still needs to be approved by development control officers. "I am not sure the system takes you that far in improving the quality of design," he said.
However, Julia Thrift, head of projects at the Town and Country Planning Association, said: "I think the planning system has become very focused on process and less able to set a compelling vision for the future." But she added that encouraging visionary planning was only half the battle. She said: "I don’t know that Farrell or the review panel necessarily understood the full impact of how viability is being interpreted through the National Planning Policy Framework. There are many local authorities trying to set out a vision of a high quality development, but find that developers say they can’t afford that."
Royal Town Planning Institute president Cath Ranson said: "RTPI supports and encourages positive and proactive planning but this does not have to be at the expense of the appropriate level of development management."
The review also called for design review panels to be replaced by new PLACE (Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation and Engineering) panels, which would operate at a strategic level, rather than considering individual planning applications.
Farrell is due to meet planning minister Nick Boles to discuss the recommendations in his report, Vaizey confirmed.
The review can be downloaded here.
- A chief architect reporting to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government with similar status to the government’s chief planner.
- A private sector built environment professional partnered by an elected member to champion design quality in every council.
- Interactive online forums for development projects over a certain size.
- Basic training in design literacy for built environment council officers.
- Strategies for local authorities to attract and retain talented design-literate planners, possibly using planning fees.
- A major review of highway regulations and specifications and the design education of highway professionals.
- Continuing professional development credits for built environment professionals volunteering and mentoring in schools.
- Pilots for "urban rooms" in different-sized towns and cities where the public could learn about development proposals.