Careers Advice: How to assess a residential planning application

Written by: David Birkbeck
Published on: 22 Jul 2019


The UK’s 300,000 homes a year target is battering planning officers. It’s central Government policy, but local politicians often resist housing because existing communities want something for the disruption. The mission seems clear: more homes within the financial reach of more people, but with boons for the locality. 

Conversely, Marsham Street has set up its Building More Building Beautiful Commission which has not been shy of prejudgement by telegraphing that it believes better architecture could satisfy residents and vanquish NIMBYism. Really? Research from 2001 to 2009 by Kent County Council which quizzed residents in 402 schemes built in the county after 2000, found criticism focused on poor urban design, with the car and all its associated infrastructure dominant. Kent CC, without any agenda, found these are the priorities. 

1 Space to park 

2 Quality of build 

3 Traffic safety on street 

4 Location  

5 Having open space near by. 

Extraordinarily ‘the width of roads’ (6), ‘road design’ (7) and the width of pavements and their accessibility (8) were the next 3 major considerations. 

NB Size of homes or style did not make the top 10.

People may not agree on architecture, but most people know when carriageways are too narrow for cars to pass and when friends who live close avoid visiting because they can’t easily walk or cycle down your street - and parking is out of the question. 

Asking a developer to change their windows from casement to sash, or to add a portico, will draw your energy into a contest that will yield little compared with tackling the scheme’s urban design, especially if you are in a planning team that can talk with highways to enable changes. Conversely, housebuilders have internal approval processes that mean standard house types takes longer to alter than the weeks allowed to the local planning authority from validating to determining an application. 

So where should you battle for quality? Faced with pressure to process planning applications, officers would be in good company applying these tests for streetscape, which are also the tests used by Homes England for selling land to developers on their prequalified panels. 

1. Show how buildings are arranged to create strong building lines and address corners

2. Show how gables and/or terraced roofs link coherently

3. Show the cohesion between different house types 

4. Show how materials in the street-facing elevation(s) are either local or distinctive

5. Show how you will stop meter boxes and other utilities spoiling street-facing elevations

6. Show how you will stop service strips and the spaces between the back of the pavement and the face of buildings spoiling street quality

7. Detail how boundaries between plots and public realm will be constructed

8. Detail your green landscaping choices for each type of street and how these relate to local authority maintenance regimes, or explain who will maintain them

9. Detail your hard landscaping choices for each type of street and how these relate to local authority maintenance regimes, or explain who will maintain them

David Birkbeck is chief executive officer at Design for Homes and is the co-author of the Building for Life 12 design manual