(Chairman of the Quality Review Panel) To receive a presentation on the activities of the Quality Review Panel.
The Interim Assistant Director (Planning Policy) outlined the background to the Quality Review Panel (QRP) that started in 1924 at the Royal Fine Arts Commission until 1999. It then came under the Commission for Architecture and the Build Environment (CABE) from 1999 to 2011. Regional panels were set up from 2009 and the Design Council CABE took the lead from 2011. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) of 2012 reviewed the current design quality standards. This was reinforced by the NPPF updated in February 2019 that reinforced design arrangements. QRPs strived to achieve an emphasis on design. Therefore, good design was important and a key aspect of sustainable development.
The Council had set up this process and the QRP was established in April 2018 primarily to try and improve design in the District and the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town developments. There were a number of design policies within the Local Plan. In the Local Plan SV there was provision that all schemes of 50 plus homes, 5000 square metres of commercial floorspace and other floorspace were expected to go to the QRP. This would also include smaller complex schemes or possibly those that were locally significant. The QPR, chaired by P Maxwell, was comprised of eighteen environment and build design experts, and its Terms of Reference were on the website. The Panel acted as a critical frame to ensure the delivery of high quality developments. The Chairman of the Panel and four other members reviewed developments and provided a written report. Reviewing developments was easier to do in the preliminary stages and these reports would be confidential. The reports would be non-confidential when planning applications were submitted to the Local Planning Authority and would be appended to any subsequent planning committee meeting. The Local Plan design policies strengthened policy DM9 (high quality design) and policy SP3 (place shaping).
The Chairman of the Panel, P Maxwell, gave a brief overview of his background as a design director, who had worked in the public sector developer side for fifteen years spanning suburban to infrastructure developments. He was involved with the regeneration of Stratford. This incorporated the design of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Chobham Manor neighbourhood for 5,500 homes, and the cost construction risk of the Stratford waterfront development that included the University of East London and the ECL Partnership. The QRP reviews would see projects through the pre-application phase to the final planning application stage with support from the planning and urban design officers of the Council and Garden Town, who would highlight when it was appropriate to go to the Panel. Most Panel members were senior director level in their specialisations.
Nearly every site visited by the Panel so far was remarkable in a different way, but it was often shocking that applicants did not understand. The QRP was there to give critical but helpful advice and challenge the sense of place. It was there to look at inclusivity. Would these homes be open and equitable for all, and suitable for families and old people etc? It would challenge developers on sustainability. If the proposal was for a commercial development, was there a business plan behind the scheme? This was particularly important for the retail sector at the moment, as it was a very tough industry to be in. The development process included quality and functionality, and how infrastructure and roads were laid out. It would also look at how developers intended to engage at appropriate points and proactively engage with the local community.
Looking ahead there was the St John’s Road development, which would have a large impact on the high street and the wider area. The Council was taking the lead to deliver a quality development. Other development projects included the Borders Lane playing fields and wellness centre, and North Weald Airfield. As QRP joint chairman for both the Council and Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, the Latton Priory masterplan site had key issues for the Panel to ensure standards set would be being met. Ultimately success was dependent on the achievements of all sites working together.
Councillor A Lion asked about sustainability on two issues, infrastructure and the environment. In respect of integration of a sustainable infrastructure, how was it going to be managed outside developments? For example, on narrow rural roads where would cycle tracks go? Would cycle tracks be laid out across new developments and how would that impact on those sites? In relation to environmental sustainability, how was this being tackled in terms of PVC, heat pumps and insulation etc. The Panel Chairman replied that the Garden Town was focussing on all four garden town areas individually and collectively. There was a large amount of existing housing and therefore, edge of town developments would not be isolated but linked into other neighbourhoods. The QRP was aware of the differences to metropolitan developments where there was good public transport. The key to sustainability was about behaviour change which had to happen now. On environmental standards, there were aspirations within the design guide for higher standards, but it was not specifically stipulated. The Harlow and Gilston Garden Town was setting a high boundary in modal shift. Therefore, there should be a similar boundary to environmental performance. The Government was looking at building regulations and was consulting on this at the moment. With the Garden Town the QRP was taking a wider view, e.g. on boilers, but it was difficult, particularly for councillors to take proper advice.
Councillor H Whitbread had concerns about aspirational dialogue in relation to future proofing developments. The new towns in the 1950s were aspirational, but 60 years down the line, they were not so good. How could the QRP ensure that current/future developments would be good in the long term? The Panel Chairman replied that the QRP had a number of experts who had been through this process. It was important to make sure that if it was a good design, that this was delivered through the planning conditions officers would write to help future proof design. In terms of functionality, that new homes were laid out properly internally to allow families to grow, and that neighbourhoods were well laid out and well managed. It was better to go for design that lasted over time and that developers were doing enough analysis to overcome this.
Councillor R Brookes remarked that she cycled locally but it was often a terrifying experience on the roads in the District, and not a safe experience. Taking account of her interest in ‘leisure’ monitoring, the Council would be building a new leisure centre on the St John’s Road site and Epping was historically a market town. Many people in the District still drove cars and there was a need to make some new provision for cars at the leisure centre. The Panel Chairman said he would not specifically answer on this development, but for the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town there was an aspiration to make sure of modal shift as developments needed to be future proofed. Provision allowed for those who could not walk etc. It was about being sensible so there was flexibility. Councillor J Philip confirmed that there was no masterplan yet for the St John’s Road site.
Councillor C C Pond commented on a car free development in Stratford and whether the Council should be producing no parking developments when they were situated close to public transport. Also, to what extent did planning departments take notice of the Essex Design Guide as it was very influential? The Panel Chairman replied that the Essex Design Guide gave useful advice and was important to developers on how to design but the Panel would not formally say, ‘complied with the Essex Design Guide’. Generally the Panel did not support car free developments, but would look at how close a development was to public transport and look at vehicle movements to ensure these were managed properly.
Councillor J M Whitehouse asked for examples of recent developments that supported sense of place and what was the QRP looking for from a developer? The Panel Chairman referred to the recent development in Loughton, near to Sainsbury’s, which was authority-led. The majority of developments seen were the standard housebuilder response and thus slightly disheartening. He was referring to what was appropriate from developers regarding the setting. A neo classic design in a rural location would probably be out of character. Also, in Newhall, east of Harlow, some build design elements were good and others not so good.
The Chairman, Councillor J Philip, thanked the Chairman of the QRP for attending this meeting.