National Organisation of Residents Associations


NORA Response to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission




We welcome this initiative, which appears to aim at restoring our faith in constructive development of our villages, towns and cities.

Our organisation is the sole national body that tries to help and speak for residents about problems we all suffer as residents, and how we can protect and improve the amenity enjoyed by residents. Members represent over two million residents.

We hope that the Commission's remit will find ways to compensate for the serious damage to our environment that has taken place particularly since the 1980s, and to ensure future property developments meet the expectations of the community. The various stakeholders all have differing objectives and have their own criteria to justify their proposals. But we are all residents and have to live with the mistakes and whims created by architects, builders and contractors long after they have gone. As residents we are the ultimate arbiters to judge their results.

We respond to our members' requests for help by circulating their problems to all members seeking their experience, so that as a self-help organisation we hope to find best practice. Over the years we have become aware of the unacceptable developments widespread in the community, mostly due to the decline in planning controls. The particular concerns of our members comprise:

  • the uniformity of new estates with no respect for the ambience of the locality so they all look the same wherever you go
  • the poky little flats conversions and the smallest new dwellings in Europe consequent on the abandonment of Parker-Morris Standards
  • the awful extensions and conversions that result from permitted development
  • the failure of local planning departments to refuse undesirable developments because they lack the funds to defend appeals
  • the pressure of the presumption in favour of sustainable development weakens the authority of planning officers and residents
  • the reduced funding of planning departments has led to fewer planning officers and often no architects leaving less time for planning authorities to assess properly planning applications
  • the loss of experienced planning officers to the private sector because the job is no longer attractive placing the burden on those with less competence
  • planning inspectors often give little weight to residents' views including even those accepted in neighbourhood plans


2. Do you consider that securing 'beauty' should be a broad objective of the planning and development process - whether in the natural or built environment?

The terms 'beauty' and 'beautiful' have different meanings for everyone, and it would be more relevant and useful to ask what do residents and their communities expect of new developments. Residents want a home they find desirable and a home where they would like to live. They expect it to be safe, comfortable, convenient and at a cost they can afford.

To be desirable as a home a host of criteria arise. Is the external appearance satisfying to the eye of the beholder? Does the interior match the expectations for size, shape and number of rooms? Is it easy to manage? Is it economic to run? Is it convenient for access to necessary facilities such as shops, schools, medical and dental services? Is there adequate and convenient public transport? Is there attractive open green space in the vicinity? Is the development designed to facilitate a community spirit?

Unless the answer to these questions is yes, the system will have failed to produce the satisfactory result for residents, whether or not the homes might be beautiful in the eyes of the architect, the builder or the planner.

3. Can you provide evidence of the best ways of creating homes and communities that have achieved a) sustainable and walkable densities b) high levels of public support c) high levels of well-being and d) environmental sustainability?

The answer is no. Responses from our members all list the problems of failure to enlist the support of relevant residents and communities when new developmentis proposed. Residents and communities are informed too late in the process since proposals made by planners in devising local plans or by developers when applying for planning consent for new estates or infill are usually well-advanced, so that suggestions on improvements are resisted and difficult to implement. Opportunities to hear residents' responses occur mostly too late, and their influence on decisions is usually minimal or at best nominal.

4. Can you provide evidence of ways of creating homes and communities in other countries, which have been successful in achieving a) to d) in question 3?

Two urban developments, one in India (1950s) and another in Germany (1990s) are highlights in modern city planning. Both are state-funded, with the essential cooperation of all the numerous stakeholders to ensure acceptance and support.

The city of Chandigarh in the Punjab is perhaps the acme of modern housing development by Le Corbusier, the instigator of designing urban cities, and is the best known example of modern development. Its open-ness, its cleanliness and its prosperity are all signs of a successful city, and justify its claims to be a 'City of Beauty'. The state project organised under the management of one architectural firm provided an example for most of the new cities in India.

Two criticisms have arisen. First, peculiar to Indian culture, is that segregation by caste was replaced by segregation by class. As a result a second criticism is that the uniformity of classic layouts meant that finding one's home could prove difficult.

Rieselfeld, a new suburb in Freiburg, has been state-managed but designed by a group of architects. Modern approaches to energy saving and control of traffic are key elements in the design, while respect for the style of Freiburg's historic setting has been accommodated in the design of modern buildings. Whether this suburb will be successful and meet the three aims defined in Question 3 remains to be seen.

5. Do you consider that collaborative community and stakeholder engagement processes (such as planning for real, enquiry by design, charettes) are effective in securing more publicly accepted development? If so, at what stage of the planning and development process are they most effectively used?

Yes. Cooperation and early consultation are essential to facilitate proposals.

Some years ago collaborative engagement between residents and the developer were encouraged when large developments such as airports, railways, new towns and villages were being considered, but this procedure does not appear to have survived. It is surely commonsense, if the support of local residents and communities is to be ensured, that appropriate exchange of ideas take place early on in the process before detailed plans are designed rather than as an afterthought when crucial decisions may have been taken by the developer and the planners.

6. Can you provide evidence on the benefits and problems associated with introducing, and enforcing, design methods such as master-plans, design briefs and design codes, in the creation of homes and communities?


The more regulation the less the innovation, so boring and repetitive dwellings are built. The imposition of design briefs stifles ingenuity and inventiveness. It should be enough to impose National Space Standards to ensure all new dwellings are fit for purpose, habitable and sustainable, and to insist that new build should respect the natural environment of the locality in order to maintain the historic setting and avoid uniformity across the nation.

A key element in the design of Rieselfeld was the insistence that adjacent buildings in a street even when terraced had to be designed by different architects.

7. How ideally, could the planning and development process in England foster higher standards in design over the long term?

Even were planning officers minded to consider higher standards in design, their efforts are currently thwarted. Their loss of autonomy due to excessive permitted development rights, the presumption in favour of sustainable development, the fear of the high cost of defending appeals when funding is inadequate and the consequent shortage of fully qualified planning staff, all put the concern for good design in abeyance. The loss of autonomy is particularly serious, because it encourages high quality planning officers to leave the public sector to work for the private sector leaving the burden on less experienced planning officers.

Planning officers have the authority to refuse planning applications on the grounds that the design is unacceptable, but their wings have been clipped by central guidance and regulation. To exert their authority they need the return of their scrutiny of developments, for example by repealing the permitted development rights for extensions, and removing the pressure to presume sustainable development.

Unless the funding of planning departments is augmented and more responsibility returned to planning officers higher standards in design are highly unlikely to appear. The current situation allows poor quality proposals to escape criticism.

Furthermore the appeal system appears too often to give little weight to the views of residents, and this criticism also applies to the weight given to proposals and policies in Neighbourhood Plans, which are based on the agreement of residents. Planning inspectors need to be advised to give more weight to the views of residents, who are after all the ultimate stakeholders.

8. What first steps do you think the Government should take towards fostering higher standards in design through the planning and development process?

Dwellings are in two distinct sectors. The private sector currently builds over 90% of all new dwellings, both those completely new and those created by conversions of existing buildings. They are built for sale, and with the price inflation since 1980 leading to an average affordability ratio (average house price/ average income) currently in the UK of 8, they are unaffordable by the majority of new households. Even those sold to landlords for rent are out of reach of most of new households. Since most people start their adult life in rented accommodation, and data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) predict that over 50% of the community will be unable to afford to buy their home, the prime need is for rented accommodation that people can afford. The ONS also records nearly four million young people and families still living with their parents, because they cannot afford to buy or rent from the public sector.

Developers only build new dwellings at a rate at which the market can afford to buy them, which currently appears to be of the order of 120,000 to 150,000 a year. The number of approved planning consents for new dwellings far exceeds the rate at which developers are building new dwellings. There should be no problem in ensuring that private sector new dwellings are built that are 'Building Better' and 'Building Beautiful' if the power to criticise developers' proposals is returned to planners. There need to be more planning officers, they need to be funded adequately and they need the funds to defend appeals successfully in spite of the power and influence that the developers have at their disposal. We have some of the world's most innovative architects in the private sector, but they need persuading to provide ideas for the public sector.

The solution for rented new dwellings affordable to rent can only be supplied by the public sector and charitable organisations. That charitable organisations produce Buildings Better and Buildings Beautiful is exemplified and well-recognised by the work for example of the Cadburys in Bournville and the Peabody Trust in London. There is currently a return to the housing market by local authorities encouraged by government. Funding is available, but the problem will be finding appropriate staff to design and build dwellings for rent at affordable prices. The style of housing built by local authorities in the past would not fit the needs and desires of today's community, and therein lies the problem of ensuring that local authorities Build Better and Build Beautifully. If encouraged to be innovative and concerned to provide the best and not the cheapest, then they could well excel and equal the excellent examples set by housing charities. But ultimately it depends on the courage of planning officers to resist and refuse developments that are not 'beautiful' whether they are proposed by the private or the public sector.

Summary of proposals

We recommend:
  • Early involvement of residents in the planning process
  • Greater weight given to the views of local residents and Neighbourhood Plans
  • Better staffing and funding of local planning departments
  • Restore the autonomy of planning officers
  • Attract highly qualified architects to work on housing in the public sector
  • Make National Space Standards mandatory with opting out requiring justification

May 2019