A transcript of the session is included below, Ruth’s contributions are shown in BOLD:
Members present: Mr Clive Betts (Chair); Simon Danczuk; Mark Pawsey; and John Pugh
Panel 1 Questions [471-535]
Chair: Good afternoon, and welcome to the seventh public evidence session in our inquiry into the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework. You are most welcome this afternoon in coming to give evidence to us. Before we begin, can I ask Committee members to put on record their interests in this matter? I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Simon Danczuk: My wife is a councillor, and some of the staff in my office are councillors.
Mark Pawsey: I have a member of staff who is a councillor.
John Pugh: I have two members of staff who are councillors.
Q471 Chair: For the sake of our records, could you say who you are and the organisations you are representing this afternoon?
Freddie Gick: I am Freddie Gick, and I am chairman of Civic Voice, which is the national body for the civic society movement.
David Waterhouse: I am David Waterhouse. I am head of strategy at the Design Council, the Government’s adviser on design.
Q472 Chair: Thank you very much for coming. Let’s begin with the point that you made in evidence to us, Ruth Reed. You were talking about the danger of rushing into these planning matters and perhaps losing sight of some of the design issues as a result. But authorities have had since 2004 to get their local plans in place. Ten years is hardly rushing, is it?
Ruth Reed: Indeed not. The general point is that there has to be a review and update of all plans after the NPPF. Therefore, those plans that did not contain NPPF-compliant policies needed to be updated. The danger was that in doing that in a hurry the ability to provide a proactive and forward-looking steer on good design in a district would be lost in the need just to get in place some kind of development management policy.
Q473 Chair: Maybe this has caused councils to do a little bit more, even when they had a local plan in place, but you are saying, David Waterhouse, that you work closely with local authorities as part of their plan-making. Do you have any idea of what is causing the apparent slowness in getting to the point where about half of them still do have not a local plan there?
David Waterhouse: Yes. One of the biggest problems is the resource cuts that a lot of local authorities have had to endure over the last spending round period, allied to the fact that, as land values pick up, more development is coming through the pipeline. That creates a perfect storm for development applications stacking up in the system, and the skills, capacity and resources are simply not within the local authority. I would argue that that cuts across both planning and urban design.
Q474 Chair: But some authorities are managing it.
David Waterhouse: Some authorities are managing it because they have those resources in place and have already had a local plan coming through the system. It is a very different picture across the country. I would argue that, two years into the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework, we are not yet in a position to have a complete picture across the country of what is working well and where. It is still very patchy.
Q475 Chair: Is it just resources?
David Waterhouse: I think it is resources, but it is also about having the confidence at local authority chief exec level and leadership at the political, community and civic level to embrace growth and the benefits that growth can bring to a community, place or city.
Q476 Chair: To all of you, is getting the local plan in place absolutely key to getting the rest of it right? Is the NPPF not going to be a satisfactory document without local plans in place to deliver it?
Freddie Gick: I would say it is absolutely necessary. There is clearly a resource and leadership problem, and perhaps there is an issue of political will. From the Civic Voice perspective, we believe that it is essential progress is made in local plans. We even wonder whether there should be some kind of approach where central assistance is provided to local authorities who are not able, within a timeframe, to move forward with a plan.
Q477 Chair: Would that not mean that if you drag your feet, you get a bit more money? It does not sound the best incentive to get on with it, does it?
Freddie Gick: Not necessarily. I did not mean money; I meant a version—I would not say special measures—where perhaps a SWAT team is put in.
Ruth Reed: A great deal is repeated from local authority to local authority in the form of standard policies. Frequently, it appears that local authorities are reinventing the wheel. There ought to be a sharing of knowledge across local authorities to reduce the amount of time spent on the more mundane aspects of plan-making and give them the opportunity to connect with a more proactive and forward-thinking vision so everybody feels inspired to go forward. There is a lot about plan-making at the moment that does not feel proactive, exciting and forward-looking. The future is not something to be welcomed but to be feared.
Q478 Chair: Freddie, you have also raised the issue of neighbourhood plans. Until you have a local plan in place, neighbourhood plans really are not a great deal of use to people, because they have to be consistent with the strategy of the local plan. If it does not exist, they cannot be. Is there anything you can do about that? If neighbourhoods have a neighbourhood plan but the authority has not got a local plan, is there any solution to that?
Freddie Gick: I am not sure what the solution to that would be. I do think, however, that a local authority ought to be paying a lot of attention not simply to a neighbourhood plan that has been fully developed but one that is on the way. The process is quite a long one, and it seems to me that account should be taken as a plan is nearing its final stages of the provisions in that plan when planning applications are being made.
Q479 Mark Pawsey: All of our witnesses are telling us that the NPPF is a plan-led system and that every local authority should have a local plan, but some are not delivering them. Should making a local plan be a statutory obligation on local authorities?
Ruth Reed: I believe it almost certainly is. The Planning Act requires local authorities to produce plans. I do not know whether it tells them how quickly they have to do it.
Q480 Mark Pawsey: Should there be a time requirement? Should that bit be beefed up?
Freddie Gick: I would argue that it should be. I go back to my earlier point. Some action would need to be taken. If within a timeframe of, say, two or three years from now a local authority has not taken steps to put in place a local plan, there ought to be some way of ensuring that a plan is prepared, not with financial support but technical planning support from the centre.
Q481 Mark Pawsey: Should there be a penalty on a local authority that does not get its local plan in place within a reasonable period of time?
Freddie Gick: If you mean a financial penalty, I am not sure that makes a lot of sense. They are already pretty strapped for cash in that area.
David Waterhouse: We have worked with over 130 local authorities around the country on how you embed good design thinking and good design process within a local plan. Of those 130 local authorities, a large proportion have now got their plans in place. It is not necessarily about having the skills in-house; it is about having that peer-to-peer support and critical friend knowledge that you can bring in to support you in that plan-making process. We have run a whole programme of work with the Planning advisory Service on that basis.
Q482 Simon Danczuk: We have seen Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury local councils working together on a joint core strategy. Why have other authorities struggled to co‑operate so closely? Perhaps we could go quickly across the panel, starting with Freddie.
Freddie Gick: There is an interesting history, if you take Birmingham as an example. Some years ago an attempt was made to try to pull together the local councils and for various reasons, partly to do with Birmingham being the dominant one, they really did not want to work together. I understand that now they are working together. I think a lot of that is down to the political will to co‑operate. It may be to do with people having personal relationships that are either very positive or negative. I think a lot of personal and political things come into this.
Ruth Reed: Where, say, 90% of one local authority’s land is green belt and they want to move their housing to another local authority, there is a feeling that that local authority is passing on its problem. This is because there is a lack of strategic planning across city regions and a broader strategic area. There is no feeling that it is a problem shared, and that is what causes relationships between authorities to break down.
David Waterhouse: I believe a strategic planning deficit is emerging across the country with the abolition of the regional structures and systems, not just the regional spatial strategy but the development agencies and government office network alongside that. What do the local plans that are delivering or are emerging add up to as a cumulative total? Spatial planning across a sub-region and a functional economic area is simply not happening. The local enterprise partnerships’ strategic economic plans go some way to thinking about how to address that, but that is simply about infrastructure investment alignment. There are no statutory planning powers vested in local enterprise partnerships.
Q483 Simon Danczuk: David, the Design Council thinks there should be a national spatial plan, does it not? Is there an appetite among Government for such a thing?
David Waterhouse: The national spatial plan is there to give confidence and certainty to investors and developers about infrastructure investment and large-scale housing growth. Where is the large-scale housing going? What is the infrastructure required to join that up, which then provides certainty to investors, both UK and foreign, as to where this investment needs to happen? There is certainly an appetite, referring to the evidence of the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Town and Country Planning Association, for that to take place.
Q484 Simon Danczuk: But the question is: do you think there is an appetite among Government?
David Waterhouse: Among current Government, perhaps not, but, as we see a mismatch and disjoint continue to emerge across these functional economic areas and we do not see the infrastructure and housing happening at the right place at the right time, I suspect evidence will tell a different story.
Q485 Simon Danczuk: So the Design Council thinks that the Government are getting it badly wrong in terms of planning.
David Waterhouse: I would not say “badly wrong”. We absolutely endorse the National Planning Policy Framework. It is very strong on design; it is core planning principle. Paragraph 17, section 4, and paragraphs 52 and 62 set out clearly the importance of design. We absolutely endorse that, but at the larger-than-local level there is a need for a strategic national spatial plan.
Q486 Simon Danczuk: Freddie, you consider the need for sub-regional clusters as a possible way forward. That is what you have talked about in the evidence you have submitted. Would they be voluntary or mandatory in the view of Civic Voice?
Freddie Gick: I think “voluntary” is all very well, but there has to be a level of “mandatory”. The present NPPF asks people to co‑operate. They have a duty to co‑operate. That is voluntary, and that would appear not to be working.
Q487 Simon Danczuk: We need some stick.
Freddie Gick: There would have to be a certain amount of stick and compulsion. What the sanctions are if you do not stick with that would have to be thought about pretty carefully.
Q488 Mark Pawsey: I would like to ask questions about the nature of design development. It is clear that one of the aims of the National Planning Policy Framework is to stimulate design. At the same time, we as politicians know that when development proposals come forward people generally do not want them; they would rather have an existing field, or whatever, rather than see development take place. One of the reasons for that is that often people picture in their own mind bad development. Is there any evidence that, if we are able to demonstrate that good development is going to take place, people will be more supportive?
Ruth Reed: Perhaps where we fall down is that we are not necessarily very good at being able to give people an idea of what they are going to get. One of the reasons for that is that at the moment planning is being done in a piecemeal way. It would be good if there was some kind of plan drawn up that was illustrated so people feared less what was about to happen. It helps if you are developing wholesale rather than piecemeal. Piecemeal is done on a development control basis. People get a letter through their door advising them there will be a planning application made and they become worried instantly.
Q489 Mark Pawsey: We went back just now to the problem of lack of local plans. The local plan is intended to direct them, so let us put on one side development control. Where the local plan is in place it identifies an area for development. People are still resistant. Are you able to show that good design means people will be more sympathetic to the idea of development, in which case how can we get those messages across?
Ruth Reed: I think we can talk about good design and modern design in a more positive way. The media do quite a bit on a small scale—the Grand Designs side of it—but we do not see anything about wholesale development using the media very often. That would be extremely helpful. It is difficult within an individual area to overcome the barriers that have been built over many years against development just for the case of one scheme. It has to be something that changes within the culture of the general population, and there is an anti‑development feeling.
Q490 Mark Pawsey: Ms Reed, the previous planning Minister described some housing estates as being pig ugly. If I may say so, some of the people who have designed these unpleasant developments are your members. Why have they done so if they are unattractive?
Ruth Reed: Sadly, I wish it was our members who did a lot of design of housing development. Unfortunately, the developers do not always use qualified designers. It is something levelled at our door but not necessarily correctly.
Freddie Gick: I recently attended a design workshop in Cirencester where the decision had been made that 12 and a half hectares would be developed and I think 2,500 houses were to be built there. A four-day workshop was run there at which about 80 or 90 local people turned up. The objective was that by the end of four days they would have designed the site. In the morning there were lots of people shouting at the landowner, developers and everybody else saying they did not want all this. By the middle of the afternoon they were sitting round eight or nine tables designing the site. They were designing it in a way that reflected the distinctiveness of Cirencester.
Q491 Mark Pawsey: If those are so successful, why do they not take place more often?
Freddie Gick: We think they should.
Q492 Mark Pawsey: That is not the answer to my question. Why do they not take place?
Freddie Gick: Because the current culture is that somebody produces a plan and consults. We would argue that there should be more participation and less consultation. Consulting is fine. I show you a plan and say, “What do you think of it?” You say yes or no, and I probably do not change my mind.
Q493 Mark Pawsey: Are there ways in which technology can help convey better what might be intended for a particular site?
Freddie Gick: There probably are, but I go back to the point that, if you simply tell somebody, “This is what we have decided we are going to do with that site”, they do not get the same ownership as if they had participated in the preparation of it.
Q494 Mark Pawsey: Mr Waterhouse, the Design Council is very keen to see houses built to Built for Life standards. How is that going?
David Waterhouse: Built for Life is a partnership with the Home Builders Federation, representing volume house builders, and Design for Homes. What we have done recently is launch the commendation where we have commended 18 schemes across the country with the planning Minister Nick Boles, looking at schemes from schemes of 20 units to large urban extensions of 3,500. The Built for Life programme is very much a tool and technique to enable that conversation to happen.
If I may turn to your previous question about the evidence, some work we undertook in 2010 with the then National Housing and Planning Advice Unit was about the whole issue of what people think about new development, and the design of that new development. One statistic was that 73% of people say that they would support the building of more homes where they lived if they were delivered to a well-designed format in keeping with what was in their area. That statistic, while a little elderly, is borne out in all the neighbourhood planning support work that we did around the country in affluent areas, regeneration areas and rural areas. If you take the existing members of the community and walk with them in their area and understand with them what they value about their area, that can be the key to unlocking some of the strong opposition you get to new housing.
Q495 Mark Pawsey: If 73% say they will support development as long as it is good, what is going wrong? As Members of Parliament, whenever applications come forward we get lots of letters telling us why development should not take place?
David Waterhouse: I would argue that part of the problem is back to the volume house builders with certain pattern books and off-the-shelf designs that pay no attention to local vernacular, local style or the connections between the proposed new development and the existing settlement and community. That is a big issue, and something we hope to tackle through Building for Life.
Ruth Reed: There has been a controlled supply of new homes on to the market, which has meant there has not needed to be an effort put in to making one developer’s offer more attractive than another. There is a lack of competition that would generate design. The last time I saw design being a factor in commercial development was in the last phases of the new towns. You would have several developers building. You would be able to go round the show homes of a number of them, and comparison shopping was possible.
Q496 Mark Pawsey: We have taken evidence from large house builders. If they were sitting in front of us now they would say they build what consumers want to buy.
Ruth Reed: We know that only 20% of the population would consider buying a new home. It is not something that people aspire to have.
Q497 Mark Pawsey: But if they were not building what people wanted, they would not sell them, would they?
Ruth Reed: They have a market that they build for; they do not extend into a more discerning market generally.
Q498 Mark Pawsey: How would you change things for them to adopt better design principles? If the customers are buying what they are already producing, where is the incentive to produce something rather different and more spectacular?
Ruth Reed: If you bring more on to the market and there is more competition to sell, design becomes a factor.
Q499 Mark Pawsey: How are you going to do that?
Ruth Reed: Release more land to people who are going to build smaller schemes and are not necessarily part of the national house builder network.
Q500 Mark Pawsey: Are you talking here about the expression Sir Terry Farrell used when he came to see us, which was “design literacy”? What is your assessment of the design literacy of most local authorities, their planning officers and perhaps their councillors?
Ruth Reed: There is a tendency to be safe. A lot of our members are involved in innovative design. They struggle to get planning permission because it is something to be slightly afraid of because it is new; it does not necessarily have a pitched roof, or fit in with a perception of the local vernacular. There is always a struggle to introduce innovation and new design. Therefore, people who want to build to sell will play safe, and that leads a lot of the design thinking.
David Waterhouse: To go back to the point about leadership and skills within local authorities, we would advocate mandatory training in design for all local councillors on the planning committee. A lot of urban design skill and resource has been lost from local government alongside planning capacity. As I mentioned earlier, those two things have caused an almost perfect storm. We would certainly advocate mandatory design training for councillors and their officers. Indeed, some work we have recently been undertaking—a councillors’ guide to urban design—sets out some principles that should be advocated.
Q501 Mark Pawsey: Mr Gick, do you think planning officers are just happy to get built the right-sized houses that are not too offensive to people rather than pay attention to good design?
Freddie Gick: I would not dream of criticising planning officers in that way. I do think, however, that more attention should be paid to the aesthetics of areas, which is why I go back to local community involvement. I think aesthetics is a subject area that perhaps is not paid a lot of attention to in the planning arena.
Q502 Mark Pawsey: When Sir Terry Farrell gave evidence to us he spoke about a place review panel looking at planning, landscape, architecture, construction and engineering. It sounds great, but is that not simply going to delay the development process?
Ruth Reed: I am probably stealing my colleague’s thunder. Design review already exists. It is called design review rather than place review. It is a multi-disciplinary review of a scheme. Good design usually comes through an iterative process where you are dealing first with a developer who has an intention to produce a good design and is a good designer, but also a local authority that wants to engage in the discussion, which requires a degree of knowledge and design literacy on the part of the officers involved. Design review is a great way of taking an objective view from outside that process and bringing to it new ideas and focus.
Q503 Mark Pawsey: Mr Waterhouse, is there not a possibility that the introduction of these reviews delays getting development done? We hear the Minister and Opposition talk about the need to deliver new homes. Does this review not put in place another process and hold back delivery of the homes that people need?
David Waterhouse: Design review is already mentioned in paragraph 62 of the National Planning Policy Framework. It references the importance of major schemes of significance coming to design review. I would certainly advocate that all of the work we do is absolutely multidisciplinary with landscape architects, planners, urban designers and architects in the mix, and it can provide that critical moment in time to step back from the development and understand, assess and critique in a positive way the benefits you are trying to achieve through that. I would argue that design review is the end of the process. What you need is the dialogue, debate, participation and workshop early on in the process to get that thinking right and clear, so that when you get to design review you are very clear about what you are trying to achieve. I would argue that, in effect, can speed up the planning process.
Q504 Chair: Do you react with enthusiasm or horror to the self‑commissioning that goes on in places like the Netherlands where planners have a much lighter touch? They simply say, “You go and build your own house on lots of plots of land.” Everyone buys their own plot and puts up what they want within very broad guidelines.
Ruth Reed: If you go round these schemes, some of them are wonderful and some of them are not, but it is a great feast for the eye. Some of the constraints are about how they sit on the plot, how tall they are and how much of the volume is built out. There is a consistency within the form but not necessarily the overall design.
Q505 Chair: They do not all look the same, do they?
Ruth Reed: They definitely do not look all the same.
Freddie Gick: There is a place for that so we do not have the swathes of housing like I passed on the train coming down from Cheltenham today. It was a building site where loads and loads of houses all looking exactly the same were being built. There is a place for the large developments, but there is certainly a place for two or three-house developments, or individual houses.
Q506 Chair: I was talking about probably 300 or 400 individual houses on the same site.
David Waterhouse: As to the approach in Almere and various other places in the Netherlands, there is a very clear zoning master plan in place, which sets out that this area is for custom-build, or whatever it might be. You do have that strategic city and region-wide plan, and within that you have the freedom and flexibility to develop custom-build, or whatever it might be.
Q507 John Pugh: Can I ask about sustainable development and sustainability in general? When we spoke to the Home Builders Federation they were very happy with NPPF. They seemed to think that sustainability was exactly what it was going to deliver. Do you have the same confidence? Do you have a variation of sustainability that might look a little different from what the house builders think of as sustainability?
David Waterhouse: As in paragraph 56 of the NPPF, design is a key aspect of sustainable development. We talk about social, economic and environmental considerations in the balance, but design is clearly set out in paragraph 56 as being a key aspect.
Q508 John Pugh: What I am really asking is whether that is understood in the same way by everybody.
David Waterhouse: I suspect not.
Ruth Reed: The notion of sustainability is that the three tenets should be taken in the round, so there is not a requirement to score 100% on all of them. Unfortunately, given the way of our world, economic sustainability is taking pre-eminence in determining whether or not things should go ahead. There are aspects of design—good design for social need and good design for environmental need—that at the moment seem to be taking second place to economic sustainability.
Q509 John Pugh: Would you share with the building federation a similar view on what economic sustainability is?
Ruth Reed: Economic sustainability should not drive choice over important matters, such as the availability of affordable housing. If it is failing to deliver affordable housing, there is a problem with the system.
Freddie Gick: It is inevitable that economic sustainability is going to be a major driving force for developers. One would like to see that not being the case, with a greater emphasis on social sustainability and sustaining viable communities.
Q510 John Pugh: How would you distinguish the two: social sustainability and economic sustainability?
Freddie Gick: Economic sustainability is much easier to define. They are building places, where we like the—
Q511 John Pugh: A place is economically sustainable if people can afford to live there; it is socially sustainable if they actually like living there. Is that it?
Freddie Gick: There is an element of that. When we look at quality of place, we think about places that are fit for purpose, are pleasant to live in and are distinctive. I think we must not lose sight of distinctiveness as an important driver of growth. Quite often, distinctiveness is related to heritage. Those are the kinds of things that need to be taken into account, as well as simple economic sustainability.
Q512 John Pugh: Ruth, in your submission you spoke about “types of embedded value that may not be easy to articulate financially in the short term”. What do you mean by that?
Ruth Reed: It is a development that is not socially sustainable and is not a desirable place to live in the long term, or somewhere that is not environmentally sustainable, either in terms of transportation or the way the buildings themselves perform. It is a long‑term, non‑economic way. It is more difficult for a developer who is building to sell to take account of those matters, because, quite frankly, as soon as they have sold it their responsibility goes. That is why it is more difficult for people to require these things of schemes rather than simply getting the volume of new development built to be sold on at a time when there is a phenomenal need for new housing in particular.
Q513 John Pugh: Can I take you to the associated topic of brownfield sites in general? Freddie, I think you spoke about the lack of funding for affordable housing on brownfield sites. Can you back that up a little bit? Do you think it needs funding?
Freddie Gick: Sorry.
John Pugh: You think that the reason brownfield sites are not being developed for affordable housing in a way that possibly you want them to be is primarily because of an absence of funding. Is that what you are saying?
Freddie Gick: I think it is to do with the economic viability of the sites. Developers would much prefer to build on greenfield sites rather than deal with all the issues of brownfield sites, so the only way you will get development on those brownfield sites, particularly for social housing, will be if there is some change perhaps to taxation.
Q514 John Pugh: You are in favour of what the Chancellor has done recently, are you, in terms of putting some money behind it?
Freddie Gick: Money has to go behind it if you are going to get brownfield sites developed.
Q515 John Pugh: David, in your experience has the viability provision in the NPPF impacted on the quality of developments?
David Waterhouse: Quality of design and place is one aspect in the round, as we have discussed, along with affordable housing and other provisions. A key point to make is that there is a different situation in different parts of the country across greenfield and brownfield sites, and design quality is absolutely impacted by the viability test. In certain places you are seeing better quality development come through because, simply put, you have higher land values. In places in the north of the country, where you have major regeneration challenges and remediation costs and other costs, the margins are much lower for developers, so you have a greater argument to make to embed some good design principles and good design thinking into that development. My argument would be that good design does not necessarily cost more.
Q516 John Pugh: You are saying that on a brownfield site the quality of development, at the moment, is likely to be less good than it would be on a greenfield site.
David Waterhouse: I am not making it as black and white as that.
Q517 John Pugh: That is what you think is happening.
David Waterhouse: I think there is a preponderance of that at the moment looking across the country. There are good examples of both. I am not saying that it is as black and white as that, but in large-scale mixed-use urban regeneration schemes I would question some of the design quality, legibility and the way the actual place is laid out. How it connects to the existing community is a big issue. Of course, you get that on greenfield sites as well, but it is interesting to see the mix, particularly as land values are still lower in the north. We may be seeing an economic upturn. None the less, land values are lower.
Q518 John Pugh: Does it affect density as well? We have the cost of remediation and so on. You will want to make a reasonable return, and therefore you will increase density beyond possibly ideal values.
David Waterhouse: Yes, correct. Once you start to increase density, you get into certain issues. The provision of affordable housing is still a real issue, and once you have denser schemes on a brownfield site you get over some of those costs, but you get into other things in major cities like view corridors. If you are increasing into tall buildings or larger development, on occasion that can have quite a detrimental impact on the existing community and surroundings.
Q519 John Pugh: As a general response to you on the long-standing housing dilemma, immediately after the war there was considerable pressure on housing but some very good efforts were made with immediate post-war housing—the Bevan standard and so on—and those properties are still much sought after. Come the 1960s and 1970s, things changed quite dramatically and people thought, “We have to get a move on”, and quality was to some extent sacrificed. Quality of build, design and environment turned out to be less sustainable. One thinks of places like Kirkby and Skelmersdale in my area. As things are rolling out at the moment, there are two dangers: that we will not build quickly enough and that we will not build well enough. Which do you think is the greater danger at the moment?
David Waterhouse: Gosh, I am not sure I could polarise it into either, but clearly we need to be building, as we know from the statistics, north of 240,000 units per annum. That is a fairly well-evidenced rough number, not taking into account backlog, but it is critical to get the quality right.
Q520 John Pugh: It can be done.
David Waterhouse: It absolutely can be done. We have done it before in mass building. The new towns were a product of their time, as were garden cities. I am not advocating either as the panacea for the current housing crisis, but there were some good design principles embedded in both. The new towns were a product of their time and they are ageing. There was some well-planned green infrastructure, well-planned public space and well-planned transport infrastructure as part of the new town programme, which was developed at scale. Of course, it is all ageing, so we need to think much longer-term about how we plan for these settlements, but I would argue that you can do both.
Q521 John Pugh: But you are not likely to get that if you are building very intensely on non-viable brownfield sites.
David Waterhouse: My argument would be very much that you need a portfolio approach to where you are putting the housing. You need to look very much at brownfield sites; you need to look at urban extensions and new settlements, where appropriate and relevant. I would cite the example of Cranbrook near Exeter as a very good free-standing new settlement that has come forward through the local and sub-regional planning system. You also need to think of green belt release in the mix, but it is about the right type of development in the right place, but underpinning all of this is the local plan.
Q522 John Pugh: Is there anything you want to add to that?
Ruth Reed: Just to observe that this is the first time we have driven the volume of house building almost entirely through the private sector. Previously, there was a great deal of social housing built by local authorities.
Q523 Chair: On the comment just made that good design does not necessarily cost more, in many cases there is a trade-off, is there not, between development happening and design? If you are a volume builder with a fairly expensive brownfield site, you can call up your computer program that picks out your boxes and sticks them on the site, and away you go; it must be cheaper than employing one of your expensive architects to come in and custom-design the development to meet the local circumstances.
Ruth Reed: If I may intervene on behalf of RIBA, if you are going to build at density it is very difficult to build off standard house types anyway, so you do need to bring in design skills, not only architects but engineers as well, to produce structures to deliver that kind of density. Oddly enough, you are more likely to get a more design-driven solution with high density than with low density.
Q524 Chair: So there is not necessarily a conflict between the two.
Ruth Reed: There is not necessarily a conflict.
Q525 Simon Danczuk: Freddie, you say that the Association of Convenience Stores report on retail planning decisions paints a disturbing picture. Surely, this is all down to economics. This is where these large supermarkets want to build, is it not? That is the nature of economics, is it not? Why is it a disturbing picture?
Freddie Gick: It is a disturbing picture because the distinctiveness of our towns and villages depends greatly on having small independent retailers. As you will know, if you go to a town or city overseas, lots of small independent stores make a city more distinctive and attractive. Of course, economics says that you must have large department stores, supermarkets and so on, but, if our city and town centres are going to be viable and distinctive, small retailers are an important component of that.
Q526 Simon Danczuk: So you think the NPPF is failing.
Freddie Gick: There are some ambiguities. One of the big things that I see in the NPPF is a series of ambiguities. If you try to compress 1,000 pages into 50 and use words like “significant”, “severe”, “major” and so on, those words are easily interpreted very differently across the country. One of the big deficiencies of the NPPF is the way it can be interpreted differently in different situations, which ultimately means that decisions on planning matters are often made by inspectors rather than locally. If a decision goes to an inspector, he uses his interpretation of the wording. We would much prefer to see—I think it is more appropriate—those decisions to be made locally, and therefore the deficiency in the NPPF is that the precision of wording is not there.
Q527 Simon Danczuk: But the evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores is quite clear. It is suggesting that these decisions are going in one direction and that is for more out-of-town shopping centres to be built. You are agreeing with that and that the NPPF is failing, because it suggests town centre first, but that is not what the ACS evidence is showing, is it?
Freddie Gick: There is almost a conflict within NPPF, because it makes provision for out-of-town centres. The provision says that a local authority can give permission for an out-of-town centre where there is inadequate availability of space within the town centre. However, with permitted development rights, at the same time landowners and property owners have freedom to change commercial premises into residential premises, so almost one hand is saying, “You can reduce the availability of space in town centres for commercial activity”, and, on the other hand, it is saying you can use that lack of availability to justify having an out-of-town centre. I think there is a conflict there.
Q528 Simon Danczuk: Do you conclude that the NPPF is failing in terms of town centres?
Freddie Gick: I would say there is still a lot of work to do.
Q529 Simon Danczuk: Why are you avoiding being critical of the NPPF?
Freddie Gick: Because there are some good things in the NPPF, so I would not want to damn it and say it is a failure.
Q530 Simon Danczuk: There are some bad things in relation to town centres.
Freddie Gick: There are some deficiencies in relation to clear policy in town centres and what should happen to town centres.
Q531 Simon Danczuk: Let me ask a more general question, perhaps starting with you, David. What else beyond its current focus on retail development could the NPPF do to help councils shape the future of high streets?
David Waterhouse: From some of the work we have been doing, it is about how you can create activity and investment in a high street or town centre while waiting for major development to take place. I would cite the example of Swindon in Wiltshire where you have public sector land waiting for development to come through the system, and you can think about meanwhile uses, community hubs, festivals and different elements to create activity and interest, but also to demonstrate that this is a place that is changing, growing and diversifying. You can do some very interesting meanwhile uses to demonstrate that while waiting for the major stuff to come through the system.
Q532 Simon Danczuk: But we do not need the NPPF to do that; we just need local authorities to be a bit more imaginative.
David Waterhouse: Absolutely. It is about imagination, but also about having a very clear retail policy. High streets and town centres should not just be about retail; they should be very much about a mix of uses. We all know of issues in various town centres at night where there are no other functions and uses. They become no-go areas because you do not have the vitality and vibrancy you often get in many continental towns.
Q533 Simon Danczuk: Do you have a view, Ruth?
Ruth Reed: We did not comment specifically on town centres, but we do consider it extremely important to keep the architectural infrastructure of our town centres, which is the cultural hub of our identity within communities. There is also a need to recognise that we need walkable facilities. All of the out-of-town stuff requires the car. Not everybody has access or wants access to a car. Because they are by their nature the hub of infrastructure you can, as was being said, concentrate other facilities, such as health and welfare and cultural activity within town centres to keep them alive. I am not convinced that planning alone will ever change the way we are starting to shop. We may have moved on from the concept that everybody goes shopping on Saturday round a town centre.
Q534 Simon Danczuk: Freddie, do you have anything to add to that question in terms of what else the NPPF could do to stimulate our high streets?
Freddie Gick: I am not sure the NPPF can do it. We are going through a period where the evolution of town centres is proceeding quite quickly. There is no particular reason, as I see it, why a town centre should be a commercial retail centre. It can increasingly become a residential and social centre. I am not sure the NPPF will do that. I think it is going to be another social movement of some sort.
Q535 John Pugh: Following on from that, what you are suggesting is that the NPPF does not have enough planning tools in the box, as it were, to get the town centres as vibrant and exciting as we would all wish them to be. Do you think, therefore, that that vacuum has to be filled by something like a neighbourhood plan, or are you aware of any NPPFs that do say a great deal about their town centre?
David Waterhouse: There is a good opportunity with the business-led neighbourhood plans that are now starting to come through the system. There is one emerging in central Milton Keynes, one in Liverpool Innovation Park and a couple in central London. That is also done in partnership with the business improvement district to generate ideas about how you can have different flexible uses within that location, so it is perhaps not necessarily down to the National Planning Policy Framework; it is about how you can do things differently with other existing policy tools.
Freddie Gick: It is not simply the NPPF. The NPPF is the tool. There are other ways of slicing this. I would point to cities such as Canterbury where the local civic society developed a vision for Canterbury. There are lots of other ways of producing characterisation studies, for example. A lot of conservation areas will have a characterisation study to indicate the character of that area and how it might develop in the future. I see NPPF as a tool. It is like a hammer. Unless you have a plan to do something with the hammer, it is still just a hammer. I believe that NPPF is a tool and not the design.
Ruth Reed: If you were revisiting the NPPF, I would suggest it would be good to focus the commentary on town centres to be broader than just retail.
Chair: Thank you all very much for coming to give evidence to us this afternoon.