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May: Planning and designing for people

Speech to the Annual Royal Institute of British Architects Council Club Dinner

I often find when I do radio interviews that I am asked for my correct title. When I tell them it is Shadow Secretary of State for Transport Local Government and the Regions they usually recoil in horror. Can we shorten it they say?

I guess that to many people at first sight there is little that seems to marry together the various bits of this wide department, but I believe there is much that brings the issues together. It is what I call the Quality of Life department because it deals with the matters that affect people's everyday quality of life - The things that can make the difference between a good and a bad day.

How was the traffic taking the children to school, did the train run on time - or at all. How long did you wait for the bus? Did you trip up on that uneven pavement the council's left for months - and they haven't collected all the rubbish sacks again and the street lights weren't working last night.

And the traffic's so much worse since they built that new development on the outskirts of the town - goodness knows what it will be like if that superstore gets the go-ahead. And now of course the primary school's full - do you know how long it took me to get an appointment at the doctor's surgery and what's more the new houses don't even look nice.

Although the word environment no longer appears in the Department's title and responsibility for the environment has moved to another department, the DTLR's responsibilities palpably deal with the overall environment in which we live and the quality of life we experience.

At this stage I should perhaps deliver an Opposition health warning. Our process of policy renewal has only recently started and I will not be able to set out for you tonight specific policy proposals. What I do hope to do is to stand back and identify the issues as I see them and show the direction in which our thinking is developing and I should say that in some areas there is some agreement with the Government at least on the aims of policy if not on delivery.

But on one thing we are clear. As we develop policy we want to produce policy that meets the needs of people's lives. This is not about Westminster knowing best. It is about understanding how people lead their lives, the problems they face and the issues that need to be addressed and developing policy to do just that. So involvement of people is important.

Central to the question of environmental quality of course, is the planning system.

Everyone is agreed that the planning system in England and Wales is in need of reform. The sorry saga of Terminal 5 exposed how the appeals system is cumbersome and costly. In my own constituency I see the resigned frustration felt as residents face a third planning inquiry on the development of motorway service areas on the M4.

I think most would agree that there are too many tomes of regulations and guidance - the plethora of RPGs, PPGs and MPGs on top of UDPs and Structure Plans are inaccessible and unaffordable for local people and for business.

My own concern is that these problems, together with the inconsistency of decisions, the uncertainty of timetables, and lack of information has generated a lack of confidence in the planning system. Too often developers feel they don't get a fair crack of the whip as they despair at the last minute intervention of local lobby groups, and individuals and community groups feel that the odds are stacked against them as the developer has all the money and the means to keep coming back with application after application.

So I agree with the Government that we need to make changes in the system, but I am not convinced that the Planning Green Paper is the answer. And indeed upon reflection, many planning professionals and business leaders are increasingly voicing their concern about its impact.

I don't want to spend long on the Green Paper tonight. I simply want to say this.

We wholeheartedly support the removal of unnecessary planning red-tape, but we do not support proposals that look as if they will strip local communities of their voice and weaken environmental protection.

The problems with planning are not just of cost, delay and lack of certainty. Whitehall politicians and regional bureaucrats too often override the wishes of local communities, resulting in loss of local character, uniformity of architecture and unsustainable development.

The Green Paper proposes that 90% of planning decisions will be decided by officers, rather than elected councillors. This isn't the best way to speed up planning decisions - and whereas business may welcome not being subject to the whim of elected councillors, local people will feel their democratic check on plans has been removed.

And then there are the concerns about the proposals for dealing with major infrastructure projects. Will Parliament have the time for the complex issues such proposals raise to be properly addressed?

Certainly, planning should be made more accessible to business. But weakening local residents' say on local planning is a retrograde step.

So I don't think the Planning Green Paper is the answer.

Indeed maybe it addressed the wrong question. What it assumed was that the issue was about delays and the need to speed the system up for business. I suggest that the fundamental question is how to restore integrity in the system and hence people's confidence in it.

For too many people their first inkling of a major development locally comes when they see an application notice or an article in the local paper. Neighbours talk. A residents action group is set up and immediately the focus is on stopping the development. The system immediately becomes adversarial.

How much better if there was more involvement of people up-front so that discussions on what was needed locally and how it could be provided took place before decisions on a particular proposal.

But there is another aspect of development proposals which I think is too often overlooked and that is the quality of the buildings and their design.

Sadly for a variety of reasons today there are not many local authorities who are able to say that they have within their planning departments people with the design skills needed to make proper judgements about these quality issues. Indeed for too many planning departments particularly in the south east it is very difficult to get enough staff, let alone staff who have the skills to assess the design quality of a proposal.

And when you do get them they rarely have the time to look at such issues. Indeed too often planners are so stretched that the process is simply mechanistic.

That doesn't improve the quality of the built environment which is so important for the quality of life. There is a very real need to look at what is happening in our planning departments. The problem for local authorities with stretched budgets is that education and social services naturally take precedence over planning.

We need to understand rather better the way in which good design and planning can impact on the quality of life. We need to give far more attention to developing buildings that reflect people's way of life and the needs of the local community and of the wider environment.

Allied to this is my concern that planning needs to take more account of the context of development. Planning decisions particularly on significant developments need to be able to be set into the context of wider infrastructure issues - not just roads but can the local infrastructure for example on schools cope with the impact.

And I do believe in this context again that design is important. If the housing application for the edge of the rural village is for identikit boxes which bear no resemblance to the village architecture or show no respect for the environment then they are more likely to be rejected by local people and the developer is more likely to find an inquiry on his hands with all the delay, uncertainty and cost that entails.

That is not to say that all design must mirror the style of the area into which it fits. After all rural villages generally show a diversity of types of housing and of design. They have evolved over the years and evolution of design is important. And uniformity within a development can also create problems. But if the development stuck on the end of the village that nobody wanted is also badly designed it adds fuel to local discontent which has an impact on those who live there and on how they fit into the local community.

So taking time and care on design is important. It should always be so, but it is particularly important when the pressure on space and on greenfields and Green Belt is as great as it is today.

Today we see Government continuing to push a centrally-driven housebuilding policy. We believe in home ownership and support the construction of more quality housing to buy and rent. But the issue is where they should be put and what sort of houses they should be.

Building houses in the Green Belt and perpetuating the neglect of our inner-cities, just fuels migration to the suburbs, and in turn, encourages yet more demand-led greenfield development.

The state of our cities matters. Over the years governments have introduced regeneration programmes but too often today local communities find themselves mired in the red tape of these programmes.

Yet planning is a practical way that our inner-cities can be helped, if we take a more holistic approach and if we focus on the quality of the built environment.

As the President and possibly others will know I am wont on occasions such as this to refer to Alice Coleman and her book Utopia on Trial.

When I read Utopia on Trial it all seemed such common sense yet common sense that had been ignored by planners and architects alike. Buildings and spaces should be designed with people in mind and with an understanding of people's need for identity in place and space. Designing buildings and spaces to give people greater safety both in reality and in perception is important. It can in itself help to provide the environment that improves quality of life not destroys it.

And design needs to understand people's sense of place and identity with place. Buildings and spaces over which no-one feels ownership and for which no-one feels responsible encourage the destruction of the environment and the reduction in the quality of life.

I was interested to read an article in the Estates Gazette about a seminar run by the Estates Gazette and Grosvenor Estates last autumn during which Sir Terry Farrell referred to large scale urban development as "a game of chess where nobody says what moves they are going to make next". These are the problems faced in this system - exacerbated by the lack of confidence in it. At the same seminar Hugh Bullock Director of Gerald Eve said "We are beginning to see the realisation that urban regeneration is about rebuilding local elements of society". Again quality of life comes through as an issue.

Urban regeneration is not only valuable in its own right and in terms of the quality of life for individuals in urban areas, but it its also important in redressing the balance of demand between urban and rural development. It takes pressure off greeenfields and that benefits urban areas and those who live in them as well as rural areas and those who live in them.

We should be protecting our green spaces. New housing should be targeted at areas with the most brownfield land and towards areas most in need of regeneration, rather than blindly applying arbitrary, regional and national targets. There should be no binding national or regional housebuilding targets, forcing Green Belt to be replaced with urban sprawl.

Instead, central government must concentrate on working with local government and local people to help create residential cities where people want to live. Urban renewal and environmental protection go hand and hand, and the reform of the planning process must recognise this.

Urban renewal has another benefit of course and that is in terms of sustainability. Living close to the place of work reduces the number or length of journeys people make. It can reduce the reliance on the car, particularly if good urban transit systems are in place. So planning urban design and transport are part of the same jigsaw puzzle and those taking individual decisions need to know the whole picture before they can piece together the individual pieces.

Sustainability is important in other ways too. I am pleased to have in my constituency a project of Integer homes that are designed for energy efficiency right down to the Alpine sedum growing on the rooves. They are a housing association project so they are designed as affordable housing for which affordability has been taken a stage further. Initial estimates suggest that they could reduce energy costs by 30-50%. I have to say there have been teething problems since the first residents moved in but then every new building has such problems.

Of course we need to give them time to settle down and the proof of pudding has yet to come after people have been living in them for say a year. But if they do what they claim then I believe this and other developments like it will be another important example of the role design can play in providing for sustainability.

Doing all this of course needs architects and planners and politicians who understand the issues and who are willing to move forward and be innovative.

At the Estates Gazette seminar I referred to earlier John Gummer said what we need is a different approach and attitude from politicians. Planning should not be about gate-keeping but about enabling.

I know Mr President the importance that the Royal Institute is now placing on requiring students to show the necessary skills to embrace the needs of sustainability within their work and I welcome that and support you in that work.

The aim of all involved - planners architects and the politicians who are taking policy and individual decisions - should be planning and designing for people and planning and designing for the future.

By setting policy and making decisions that recognise and meet the needs of people and the wider community, by understanding the role played by good design and the quality of the built environment in improving the quality of life then we can all be not gatekeepers but enablers.

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