Planning for success
I have been intrigued for many years by the comparisons and contrasts of the planning system in the UK and Europe, in particular Poland where I’ve resided and worked for much of the past 10 years.
When comparing elements of façade design, and maybe entire elevations and street scenes, what the UK system lacks, and the Polish and other Central European systems offer, is an emphasis on masterplanning, not confined to a broad brush distribution of land uses, but sufficiently detailed to give cities a sense of spatial order and formal discipline.
The City Architect as design leader, coordinator and enabler
In our major urban planning projects in Poland, such as the Gdańsk Shipyards or Tbilisi city centre, buildings were designed within strictly defined rules, determining not only functions, plot ratios and parking standards, but also building lines, minimum and maximum heights, set-backs and projection dimensions, and many other parameters, invented and applied with the explicit intention of creating a coherent, traditional urban typology and grain. Far from inhibiting good design, the best architects can make their buildings unique and meaningful by balancing order with disorder, painting distinctive images on an undistracting canvas, or – with due apologies for the mixture of clichés and metaphors – playing memorable melodies in measured counterpoint to steadier rhythms and harmonies. It is appropriate that those in charge of planning departments in Europe are often known as City Architects. The role of the City Architect does not undermine that of other architects, only provides guidelines and disciplines. By contrast, the training of planners in the UK may give them a good understanding of urban economics and land use strategies, but might not equip them to work proactively as co-creators of actual buildings and inhabited spaces.
Less risk, more reward
The rigour of the Central European approach to planning and zoning does not hinder investment but promotes it, making it far easier to estimate the density and hence value of any site. Bidders for sites compete on a playing field which, if correctly studied and studiously analysed, substantially takes the guesswork out of site appraisals. As a consequence, bids for sites should reflect the developer’s technical and commercial skills, and not just their attitude to risk and gut feelings. This is in stark contrast to the UK model, in which a planning application must now be submitted with countless surveys and reports, just to be considered valid and worthy of consideration by officials. It seems absurd that planning authorities now require bat surveys, tree surveys, noise surveys etc etc to be submitted in order for an application to be validated (as opposed to making the planning consent conditional on such surveys being done prior to commencement of construction) yet the elephant in the room – the size, shape and typology of the development – remains obscure to both parties until things progress much further. European masterplanning is not set in stone, however; and clients can often propose the rezoning of sites and the redrafting of local plans, so long as the revisions are demonstrably well considered and contribute to the city as a whole. The UK approach is, predictably, less structured and more pragmatic. Such rules as there are can frequently be relaxed if a planner likes the project as a whole. For example, on a number of our projects, planning officers were quite happy for distances between windows of habitable rooms being a couple of metres below their official standards because they supported the application more generally, and realised that a rigid tick-box mentality might kill what was otherwise going to be a positive contribution to their town or city. It would be good to hear your views on this subject – good and bad experiences in the UK, Poland or anywhere else in the world. And if you’re a UK-based developer frustrated by the planning system (notwithstanding George Osborne’s promised streamlining) why not take a look at opportunities further East?