Achieving good design through the planning system

by Gareth Barton, Senior Planner, Turley Asssociates

Over the last decade achieving ‘good design’ has increasingly become a fundamental part of Government planning policy in both England and Wales. In England, Planning Policy Statement 1 (PPS1) (2005) makes it clear that “good design is indivisible from planning”. The Welsh Assembly Government’s Technical Advice Note 12 (TAN12) (2009) rightly warns, however, that “good design is not inevitable.” As a result, everybody involved in the planning process has a responsibility to help deliver ‘good design’. 
This article does not attempt to define ‘good design’, aside from stressing that it is more than simply what a building looks like. The Design Commission for Wales advises that quality design also includes “fitness for purpose, environmental performance, social and economic sustainability, responsiveness to user needs and the aspirations of the local and national community”  
Case Study – St David’s Dewi Sant
This article focuses on examples of how ‘good design’ can be achieved through planning, drawing on personal experience gained as part of the team responsible for delivering St David’s Dewi Sant in Cardiff. St David’s Dewi Sant is a city centre mixed use development, comprising over 100 new stores, 304 apartments, leisure uses, a new central library, public realm improvements and public art. After ten years of planning and three years of construction the scheme opened in October 2009, transforming the southern part of the city centre.
Mechanisms to Secure Good Design
The planning system provided a number of mechanisms to help secure a well designed scheme. These included:
  • according with the policy context set out in national and local planning policy documents;
  • establishing clear masterplan principles through the outline planning application process;
  • the use of appropriate planning conditions to ‘fix’ aspects of the development and give weight to the approved masterplan principles document;
  • consideration of the detailed design through the reserved matters process, together with further planning conditions; and
  • continued engagement with key stakeholders to help guide development. 
Collaborative Approach
Central to each of the mechanisms referred to above was the recognition that a collaborative, multi-disciplined approach was required from the outset. This has been achieved by the continuous involvement alongside the developers of professionals including planners, architects, urban designers, transport engineers, landscape architects, centre managers, police architectural liaison officers and other key stakeholders (including the public). The driving force behind this approach was the close working relationship between the St David’s Partnership (the development partnership responsible for bringing the scheme forward) and Cardiff Council. 
Sense of ownership
This collaborative approach also helped to ensure that all those involved with the project worked towards a shared goal – achieving a quality development on the ground. This led to a continued sense of ownership and collective responsibility, fostered by an understanding of the importance of the scheme to the regeneration of the immediate area and to Cardiff as a whole.
Local Context
Since the genesis of the project the drive towards ‘good design’ has been led by a detailed understanding of local context. This has focused not only on the site and what surrounds it, but also, given its scale, the role the development will play in how the city centre and Cardiff as a whole function. 
At the heart of this has been the importance of Cardiff’s networks of Victorian arcades, which include a number of listed buildings and form an integral part of a designated conservation area. This was a central part of the masterplan principles established through the outline planning process, and controlled further through specific planning conditions.   
More than just landmarks buildings
St David’s Dewi Sant includes two landmark buildings at its southern end, namely a new John Lewis department store and a replacement Central Library. The scheme, however, does not focus solely on landmark buildings and external appearance. 
As TAN12 advises, ‘good design’ requires a process of problem solving and innovation that embraces “sustainability, architecture, placemaking, public realm, landscape and infrastructure”. St David’s Dewi Sant brings together these components to deliver a development that creates a new destination rather than simply a collection of landmark buildings. This is reflected in the significant improvements to the public realm, which have enhanced existing routes and opened up new routes to increase permeability within the city centre. In doing so, the development reinforces the character of Cardiff’s historic arcades and urban grain.     
Flexible Approach
It is important to recognise that whilst certain principles were considered fixed there remained a need for flexibility, creativity and innovation from all those involved in the design process. This is essential given that a project of this scale, with a planning and build period stretching across a decade, is clearly going to evolve through time. 
The role of the planning process in achieving ‘good design’ clearly does not stop with the grant of planning permission. In terms of St David’s Dewi Sant, the collaborative approach has continued beyond centre opening, with many of the professional team still working alongside Centre Management and the Council. In doing so, it is hoped that the 30 million visitors estimated to visit the centre each year will agree that ‘good design’ has been achieved. 

Note: this case study will be explored at the conference in Cardiff on 27 May.  View Conference programme and booking form.