Research from UCL suggests councils outside of London and the South-east are reluctant to challenge designs 

Councils in England outside London and the South-east do not seem to be as rigorous in rejecting plans on design grounds, according to research. 

UCL’s Professor Matthew Carmona found design seemed “no longer to be set aside as a sacrificial lamb for other factors” after a change in planning policy last year to raise design standards. But there seemed a “particular reluctance to challenge design outside of London and the South-east”, he concluded. 

Planning approval stamp

The research reviewed 32 design-related major appeals to the planning inspectorate last year.

It aimed to look at the effect of an amendment to England’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in July last year directing planning departments to refuse developments that were “not well designed”. 

Of the 32 appeals, 26 were in London and the South-east, three in the Midlands and three in the North. None were in the South-west. 

Although Carmona recognised there are more major housing developments in the South-east, the skew still suggested there were proportionately less appeals in other areas of England, he concluded. 

The research found inspectors had started to consider design on equal terms with other facts and in doing so regularly referenced the changed policy position in the NPPF. 

Inspectors had previously put aside design quality prioritising the need for local authorities to meet housing targets, the research said. 

And while some “excellent housebuilders” do prioritise design “we are also faced by many that do not”, the report added. 

Carmona also sought to debunk “commonly held beliefs” by local planning authorities, such as that housebuilders are too formidable to turn down applications for the design, good design takes too long and refusing an application on design will lead to costs for the council. 

He said: “This is a good news story for planning and design.  The research clearly demonstrates a sea change in how design related planning appeals are being dealt with by the planning inspectorate.

“This should embolden local planning authorities around the country to demand better design and to simply reject schemes when they do not match those high expectations.”

The research highlighted House of Commons Library figures showing about one third of planning appeals are successful each year. This rises closer to one half in the case of major developments.