Development Control and Design Quality

On the evening of 19th January, the Society was treated to a stimulating presentation by John Colburn, the District Council Director of Development, on the subject of design and development control.

John reminded us that until only a few years ago, Central Government guidance to Planners was that design issues were not their responsibility. They should focus on land use planning with a particular emphasis on getting the broad policy right. It was on the advent of John Selwyn Gummer as Secretary of State for the Environment that this Government policy was thrown in reverse with the publication of revised planning guidance early in 1997. Now, planners are encouraged to incorporate design policies in their plans and to ensure that, when considering planning applications, issues of design are given sufficient weight. To do this, Central Government has produced, and continues to produce, a variety of design documents to assist development and control decisions.

John explained to us how planners were creating design check-lists to ensure that, prior to the submission of planning applications, discussions taking place with applicants could be guided by advice, setting out the information to be obtained in assessing the quality of the design. Local authorities must consistently seek to obtain high quality design. They are encouraged to produce design statements for important locations prior to planning applications being submitted and to consult the local community on its views on the suitability of schemes for prominent and other important sites. John did not pull his punches on the problems that planning officers face in towns and cities like Lichfield. Raising design standards is not easy, especially against a background of time and financial constraints imposed by the economics of site development. So often in the past, cost and not the maintenance of high standards has been at the forefront of the minds of applicants and even today, difficulties can be encountered by planning officers in this respect.

John concluded his presentation by sharing a number of photographs of schemes with us.

Should buildings blend into their surroundings, or stand out as bold statements? Should buildings seek to mimic particular architectural periods or not? There can be no easy answer. Historic towns and cities are a built record of the history of that town and as such will display a kaleidoscopic framework of different styles and periods of buildings. Often, this is what contributes to the quality of the environment.

Perhaps John's presentation created more questions than answers but what is very clear is that there is a strong need to promote better design in our urban and rural areas. This can only be achieved by working in partnership between the local authorities, the architects, the developers and the local community to ensure that our new buildings make a positive contribution to social and environmental well-being.

Roger Hockney
January 1999