The NPPF, 'beauty', and ‘gentle density’

Grant Leggett, Executive Director at Boyer looks at the vague and immeasurable concepts of 'beauty' and ‘gentle density’ included in recent government planning policies.

Related topics:  planning,  development,  Design
Grant Leggett | Boyer
24th January 2024
poundbury 790
"Georgian architecture may represent the very best in design to some; to others, the repurposing of a centuries-old style is regarded as defeatist, retrograde, or even ‘Disneyesque’"
- Grant Leggett - Boyer

Both 'beauty' and ‘gentle density’ were central themes of the revised NPPF, published last December.

The notes which accompany the NPPF state that the Government will deliver ‘enough of the right homes in the right places with the right infrastructure, ensuring the environment is protected and giving local people a greater say on where and where not to place new, beautiful development…specifically, this includes changes to…promote more beautiful homes, including through gentle density’.

The changes were in large part a response to a rebellious group of anti-development backbench Tory MPs who threatened to torpedo the progress of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. And so some big-ticket changes (such as removing mandatory housing targets and tightening up on Green Belt development) were made.

On this basis, many practitioners are already questioning whether the rather vague and unquantifiable concepts of 'beauty' and ‘gentle density’ were thrown in as a means of stalling proposed new developments for political purposes. For stall them they will; they are terms open to such subjective interpretation that they will tie decision-makers in knots even more than they already are.

We have already seen instances of this. The 'beauty' issue came to the fore in April when Michael Gove called in and subsequently refused planning permission for a 165-home development by Berkeley Homes in Cranbrook, Kent.

The decision was based on Gove’s view that the design was too ‘generic’. Consequently, Berkeley is taking Michael Gove to court on the basis that his decision, which involved overruling planning inspectors, was ‘irrational’.

The case attracted considerable criticism and unsurprisingly given the timing, critics claim that much-needed homes were being sacrificed for political expediency.

But what does the addition of the word 'beauty' add?

It is immediately problematic because of the absence of a definition. The emphasis on design as a determining factor is the result of the 2020 publication Living with Beauty. But despite using the word 'beauty' 336 times and ‘beautiful’ 63 times, the report doesn’t define what is meant by either.

In the context of density, the NPPF identifies mansard windows as ‘well designed’ and states that considering them harmful to the character of neighbourhoods is ‘wrong’. It seems making value judgments about specific architectural features is a step too far for planning policy. After all, it is commonly accepted that whether any architectural feature is ‘right’ or ‘beautiful’ depends upon the context.

My own view is that good design is closely linked to good land use. In most situations, and especially in urban areas, density has many advantages. It helps create a mixed and balanced community, increases the potential for a range of facilities nearby, is economically advantageous (allowing resources to be spent on services and amenities) and can facilitate a greater variety of uses, such as live/work and co-living.

Denser schemes also have the potential to be more sustainable, not least in terms of sustainable transport, if located close to public transport or within easy reach of local services. Developable land, especially in cities, is a scarce resource and potential development capacity mustn't be wasted.

Beauty and density are dependent on context, but the similarities end there. In fact, context is one of the many features which demonstrates why the two cannot be considered synonymous. Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall’s experimental pastiche development on the outskirts of Dorchester exemplifies this.

At Poundbury, Georgian architecture predominates. Georgian architecture may represent the very best in design to some; to others, the repurposing of a centuries-old style is regarded as defeatist, retrograde, or even ‘Disneyesque’.

Similarly, Georgian architecture divides opinion on density grounds. To me as a Londoner, homes of just three storeys, with generous gardens both front and back represent low density. To a resident of a 1970s bungalow on a generous suburban plot, it would represent high density.

Perhaps schemes such as Poundbury will be effective not only in encouraging NIMBYs to accept development but also to encourage them to accept higher density - but only in those areas where the average density is lower than a typical neo-Georgian development. Take that approach in London and the perfectly acceptable densities currently achieved will be lost, homes will become increasingly scarce, house prices will skyrocket and local centres will become desolate and unviable.

A national document such as the NPPF has no role in prescribing either beauty or maximum density across all contexts, were it even possible to do so. My preference is to avoid tinkering with policy when the likely outcome is at best uncertain and at worst, politically motivated.

We have enough uncertainty in the planning at present. Constant change will only intensify uncertainty and slow down the much-needed provision of new homes, amenities and infrastructure.

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