Architects Journal - A painful Para 55 process:
A painful Para 55 process: Why do councils have design review panels if they ignore them? Wendy Perring questions the worth of expert panels following a post-appeal planning refusal for a ’country house clause’ home in the South Downs National Park
Why are highly qualified, specialist design panels appointed to advise on, enhance and protect our built environment, being ignored by local authorities – particularly in Paragraph 55 applications, where permission hinges on the interpretation of exceptional quality or innovative design?
Faced with increasingly challenging social, economic and political conditions, local authority planning and urban development departments are turning to qualified and respected design professionals, design review panel and design advocates to offer informed and unbiased advice on the merits of architectural proposals across the country. Most hold the view that beauty is subjective; it is in the eye of the beholder. However, Alain de Botton famously argues that beauty in the built environment is in fact objective, measurable and not at all subjective.
The RIBA would agree, actively promoting the role of the design review panel, while London mayor Sadiq Khan would presumably also concur with de Botton, having recently appointed 50 architects and designers as design advocates, helping to ensure the highest standards in design are achieved in projects commissioned by the GLA. Many of these 50 accomplished architects and design professionals sit on other design review panels across the country, often voluntarily giving their time in the pursuit of the ‘exceptional.’ The notion of ‘exceptional’ is a prevalent theme in this debate. How can exceptional be quantified and what are the mystical ingredients for this tasty recipe?
NPPF Paragraph 55 (the ‘country house clause’) houses are a hot topic at present and manipulated computer generated images of these ‘exceptional’ schemes are commonplace in architectural magazines. Paragraph 55 is the holy grail for architects. It demands the very best, requiring that the ‘exceptional’ be achieved on a greenfield site, often in breathtakingly beautiful locations where normal planning legislation does not apply. This raises key questions: how can permission for these schemes be achieved in an already beautiful place, when building could be perceived as a destructive act; how can the beauty of a natural place be ‘enhanced’ through the placing of a manmade object when this appears contradictory? Furthermore, can architecture be objectively defined as ‘exceptional’, when this is so widely considered a subjective characteristic?
Over the last two years our practice travelled this Paragraph 55 journey. All the ingredients had been assembled: an enlightened and experienced client with a stunningly beautiful site in the South Downs National Park; a planning consultant (Hughes Planning LLP) with numerous successful Paragraph 55 applications to his name; an internationally recognised and award-winning engineer, Eckersley O’Callaghan; an established landscape consultant, Terra Firma; and professor Doug King – a pioneer in the field of sustainable design who advises the government on sustainability issues.
We invested more than 1,400 hours of design time in the pursuit of exceptional. A charrette was held at a local school of architecture to embrace the ideas of students and use the project as an educational tool. The project was reviewed twice by the South Downs Review Panel – the approach was debated, the virtues of the site and landscape setting deliberated and the qualities of beauty dissected at length, all in the name of critical reflection. The scheme was honed and tuned and resubmitted to the design review panel, who finally delivered the verdict that the scheme (in their view) ‘had passed the point of justification in relation to Paragraph 55.’
Following a lengthy and difficult planning process, the local authority – the South Downs National Park Authority – ignored the panel’s recommendation and refused planning. Of course, it could be argued that the design review panel had made a mistake, and that they had missed something. After all, beauty is subjective, is it not? But to take this stance infers that several award-winning architects, landscape architects and academics do not know what is exceptional. If we accept beauty is objective (perhaps why we spend so long in schools of architecture training in an appreciation of design and beauty), should the architect’s view be a compulsory element within the planning system and legislated by the Planning Inspectorate?
Following the refusal, with the assistance of Hughes Planning (a specialist planning consultant experienced in Para 55 houses) and a planning barrister, a planning appeal was lodged. The process took many months and the upsetting verdict was finally delivered in autumn 2017; the appeal was dismissed. Whilst the inspector Graham Goulde said there was ’much to commend about the quality and innovative nature of the house’s design’, he could not allow it to be built in the proposed ’sensitive’ national park location, arguing that any new development could not preserve or enhance it, regardless of high-quality design.
This case sets a dangerous precedent for future Paragraph 55 schemes. It stifles the original intent of Paragraph 55 to facilitate development of an isolated home in the countryside building on Britain’s legacy of grand country houses and castles which enhance their setting. It may lead to similar refusals particularly within AONBs and National Parks, where the project is wrongfully perceived to destruct rather than enhance the natural landscape.
After such a convoluted and tortuous process, all the design team were understandably distressed at the final appeal decision. To have been so close to success and with the support of those whose recommendations should have been heeded by the inspectorate, the final decision felt particularly unjust. It has been a frustrating process for all those involved, particularly the client who has shown such an unwavering trust in both the team and the planning system – a true patron of architecture and the arts.
However, undeterred by the sometimes overwhelming challenges posed by Paragraph 55, architects still eagerly head off in pursuit of the ‘exceptional’ design, bolstered by their self-belief and shielded by their thickened skins. We are already working on another Paragraph 55 house elsewhere in the UK.
About the Project:
Parsonage Farm is positioned within a unique area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The landscape is dominated by the geology in the form of the South Downs Hills.
The village of East Meon and many of the buildings surrounding the site have a strong connection to this landscape and geology in their use of the vernacular building material of flint. They are formed from the very stuff of the earth, and these materials have stood the test of time.
The proposed design that has evolved is not the normal established way of creating a house. It is a true interdisciplinary collaboration between the disciplines of structure, environment, landscape and architecture that have worked together to meet an identified need.
As our clients approach retirement they have identified that their living requirements are changing – they require a home in which they can live comfortably and sustainably for the next 20-30 years. The architectural design is innovative – it is a direct response to the landscape in which it is sited, not only in form that the building takes, but in the innovative interpretation of the vernacular language of the area.
The locally available materials and traditional construction methods of East Meon have been the starting point for the decisions made as to what this home is crafted from. The result is dwelling that has a unique architectural and structural form that enhances it’s setting because the collaborative coming together of the design approach achieves a harmony in balance with nature.