Opinion: A question of standards

Rules provide safeguards but some standards may need a fresh look, writes Stephen Gleave.

I recently spent an hour responding to a colleague’s request as they prepared for an upcoming Inquiry.  Their simple question was: what is the origin of the 21 metre set off distance between habitable rooms across back gardens?

Where did the standard come from, and why 21 metres?

The best answer I could generate was that following housing and planning legislation from 1909, 1919 and then 1947, there was a political and societal energy to improve housing conditions.

Setting standards was integral to a state caring and wanting to control development of much needed new homes. Back in 1952, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government decided that, to ensure adequate daylighting in habitable rooms for two and three storey homes, the minimum distance between dwellings to ensure light penetration was established as 46 feet and 68 feet respectively.

Measuring daylight was not the same as a more subjective judgement around privacy. However, taking broad thinking into account, a figure of 70 feet was established in the guidance notes as "generally accepted". There was no real evidence offered to support it.

This got me thinking more broadly; how many other standards might we have that are not absolute, but are generally agreed? I returned to the old classroom question of why do we have any standards at all?

Set in the origins of twentieth century town and country planning lies the fundamental need to control all matters of public health. Sanitation, air and light quality were all recognised as playing a part, and who would want to challenge any measure that would save lives and reduce dire living conditions? Highways and roads brought parallel standards, and extending the mandate of control to more subjective matters came in the post war period with centralised government minds setting national standards for housing densities and public sector housing provision, through a series of tremendous guidance notes. This built on a notion of nationalised utopia. 

Designing in the 1950s and into the 1960s became a process of drafting within the rules. Plans for local authority homes were repeated up and down the land – new estates, village extensions and, of course, the bigger new towns. The latter aimed to provide more than just housing with ambitions from Cumbernauld to Milton Keynes delivered with starkly different results – so much for standards.

Some judged Parker Morris in 1961 as the high point; robust standards, guaranteeing spatial and environmental standards rarely bettered anywhere in the world.

Sadly public sector build quality didn’t match and the resulting estates, fuelled by a need for homes and a construction and political ambition to build systematically and quickly (sound familiar?), left us a legacy that is still costing, physically, socially and economically.

How many studies have there been that investigate the cost of the legacy and ask questions about lessons learned? Indeed, my practice has only just completed another.

So why standards at all?

We do like code books. Planners, unlike architects, do not and should not draw every line. We should operate around principles: guiding interpretation and a search for creativity rather than stifling individual response.

My reflection is that if you set up a system called development control you have an interest in creating rules against which to control. The big question is what should we be looking for in the future?

Rules certainly provide safeguards and, while there is a case that it is essential to protect the public interest from developers seeking to maximise financial gain, and designers not thinking through the practical consequences or the aesthetic, there will it seems always be a place for standards.   

Perhaps one day we will call the regulatory process development promotion? At which point we may still have general rules to help us think through solutions, but not as a measure to hold back initiative or creative problem solving.

Context and concept

In looking to shape better places, which is what planning should be about, we need to understand and respond to context: physical, social and economic. We also need to be rigorous in concept – from simple and understated to challenging and bold.

For future generations, I would certainly like to see a much looser regulatory framework, which allows compromise in the interests of placemaking. If 21 metres were 17, would it really matter?

Don’t compromise health and safety. Do allow interpretation and innovation – what harm will it do? Think about the places in history that have evolved without rules, with individual responses and expression. These are almost always listed among our favourite places.

Let us observe the needs of today and be creative. I don’t favour experiment and I particularly don’t like any notion of trying ideas on people without choice. Notwithstanding, if there are homeowners and residents who can see opportunities to intensify their living and amenity space - meaning not every home delivers the same generally agreed standard - what harm might there be?

Human beings are the great adapters. We enjoy privacy and we don’t need intrusion, but these are not life threatening. They are factors that we can mitigate. Curtains, blinds, fences, walls, landscape, external screens, angled windows and garden sheds are all devices that mean that an arbitrary generally agreed distance might not actually need to be a standard.

It begs the question what other standards might need a fresh look and when might we start afresh?

Stephen Gleave is an executive director at planning and design consultancy, Turley, with a responsibility for the company's placemaking agenda.

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