Opinion: Beauty tips would help councils clamp down on schemes that don’t keep design promises

One of the key asks from the government-backed Building Better Building Beautiful Commission was for improved enforcement to ensure developers adhere to approved plans when they build out schemes.

The report called for tougher sanctions for breaches of permissions or conditions, improved digitised management of the post-application process and more communication between development management and enforcement teams.

There's little doubt there's a problem. Former Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire testifies to a recent scheme where the site team was incentivised with a share of any savings made from specification changes pushed through via reserved matters applications. The result? Dumbed-down design: aluminium windows changed to plastic and fake wood-grained cement board substituted for carefully selected rendered cladding.

It's not hard to see how simple economics drive this situation. Once an application is permitted, any savings from using cheaper materials or simplifying tricky design details go straight onto a developer's bottom line. This is particularly tempting for housebuilders who retain no long-term interest in the site.

But even if the developer isn't out to do this, the contractor often is. Competing to offer the job at the lowest cost, they find themselves working out how to make money from it later by the use of the dreaded "value engineering" – too often a euphemism for de-speccing.

There are many ways this can happen. Sometimes developers retain freedom to manoeuvre by deliberately specifying few details in an application, placating planning committees with non-binding computer-generated visuals "for illustrative purposes". Often specification of design details gets shoved into planning conditions, and thereby into the under-resourced post-application stage. Sometimes changes are made without permission in the hope that enforcement teams will simply be too short-handed to notice.

But authorities lack confidence as well as resources. They fear they won't be able to defend refusal of applications to set aside conditions on design grounds. Or they just want the investment, or fear the impact on housing land supply if they refuse.

The commission's suggestions could give some confidence back. It makes sense to increase penalties to a level at which developers cannot treat them as a "cost of doing business", and better management of conditions, and better communication, could assist everyone.

However, applicants fear that schemes could get held up if, for example, it is genuinely not possible to source a certain specified material. Councils will have to take a considered view.

Other measures are already being used – for example on the former Olympic Park – which the Beauty Commission could have referenced. Increasingly, planning obligations are being used to specify that design architects are retained for the build-out phase – and where they are not, a sum is paid so the council can monitor progress.

Ultimately, local authorities will be best served by robust and defensible design policies in their local plans, or detailed site-specific design codes. This can allow developers to factor in these costs up front, reducing the pressure to claw back margin later.

Joey Gardiner is special correspondent for Planning

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