If Local Area Plans require more architecture, they also need more flexibility in use: The Planning Act can enable this.
I write in response to the recent Debate posts entitled ‘Difficult Local Plans’ and the various opinions shared by respective authors, all of which provide interesting solutions on how to improve the design of our urban environments.
Firstly, it is my feeling that rather than incorporating greater architectural detail and requirements into Local Area Plans, consideration should be given to the designation of architectural character areas or zones within urban areas for which a design code is produced and adhered to. This can be facilitated by and included in Municipal Plans to provide a baseline consistency in design, reducing the opportunities for architectural anomalies. Masterplans currently provide these to a certain extent.
This approach is particularly relevant in urban areas of high value which may comprise listed buildings or heritage assets where conservation areas can be established, and the design parameters of future development proposals established and regulated by the publication of an area design manual or guide.
Such practices are routinely established within other international planning systems. At a high level, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in England has introduced a ‘National Design Guide – Planning practice guidance for beautiful, enduring and successful places’ in 2019. This tool provides the framework from which more specific urban design guides can be implemented within urban areas.
Meaningful Public Participation
Where appropriate, Local Area Plans can specify greater details, such as an element of increased building height for proposals, where this is justifiable. Any such departure from a baseline design guide for an area proposed by a Local Area Plan should be subject to a sufficient period of public consultation and carefully consideration by the municipality.
Furthermore, upon the submission of an application for a Building Permit, the public should again be afforded an opportunity to comment on proposals. Where a Local Area Plan is not in place for the site, a notice period should be introduced allowing adequate public consultation, undertaken by the applicant before submitting.
In both instances, the onus should fall to the applicant to propose and undertake proportionate levels of public consultation and engagement which can be overseen by the municipality. Such consultation should take the form of neighbour notification, advertisement online and in a local newspaper, accessible information and easy mechanisms to comment, such as through a centralised app. ‘Workshop’ style meeting(s) should follow on an open forum, moving away from the traditional townhall ‘us and them’ environment to a dynamic which is equitable and provides an opportunity for discussion and solutions. A level of engagement proportionate to the scale and significance of the proposals should be set out by The Planning Act.
This will improve transparency and public participation, in accordance with aim number 5 of Section 1 of the Planning Act and contribute positively to a more inclusive planning system. Ultimately the decisions will be made by the municipality but can be shaped effectively by end users, providing the correct methods are used to allow this.
Future Use & Flexibility
It is not yet clear to what extent the Covid-19 situation will have on the land use environment in urban areas, particularly in city centres. The shift to online retailing has been accelerated during the lockdown period, with a shift towards a more cashless society. Recent market research for the second quarter of 2020 has shown that retailers in Copenhagen have, as yet, struggled to recapture trading levels of 2019. This is particularly true of smaller retailers which were struggling prior to the pandemic. The future of the office is also facing uncertainty due to increased flexibility in working arrangements prompted by lockdown measures.
As an alternative to zoning and the certainties of the content of a local plan in terms of land use, a more flexible approach can be adopted to introduce certain changes of use via permitted development rights. This would be aimed at properties for which their permitted use is no longer viable which may result in the site or building becoming vacant. Section 37 of the Planning Act currently permits conversion of disused agricultural buildings for residential purposes (amongst others), illustrating the acceptability of this approach in principle.
Recent policy approaches in both England and The Netherlands have afforded the opportunity to change the use of existing commercial office premises for residential purposes, with temporary uses also permitted. The Dutch legislation arose as a solution to the 2008 crisis, via the Crisis & Recovery Act and the The New Build Decree 2012.The has had positive results in both countries, significantly boosting housing supply and providing more affordability to the housing market . Such an approach would be welcomed in Copenhagen due to the sustained high levels of housing demand vs. supply and the projected influx of people to the city in the coming years.
Insofar as this approach can benefit the stock of residential accommodation in the city, a robust set of standards is recommended to ensure conversions of any kind i.e. from retail, commercial or office use to residential is completed to a high standard which ensures quality living conditions for occupants. Retrofitting and sustainable building energy ratings must also be achieved. It remains advisable for municipalities to retain an element of control in such circumstances whilst enabling efficient development which may otherwise require a change of a local plan, resulting in delays and inevitably having a detrimental impact upon the quality of our streetscapes and neighbourhoods.