Rebecca Smith: Let’s use the planning system to get more beautiful and sustainable landmarks

14 Jan

Cllr Rebecca Smith is the chairman of the Planning Committee on Plymouth City Council. She was the candidate for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport at the last General Election.

Last May, the Conservatives unexpectedly took control of Plymouth City Council. As a result, after serving on the Planning Committee since my election in 2018, I was appointed Chair. And I fancied stirring things up a little…

My biggest frustration as a Committee member had been when large landmark developments in key locations in the city came before us for decision. If questions were raised about the design and aesthetic (often in my opinion lacking ambition and/or beauty), we were consistently told it was too late to make changes.

I recall a project in one of the most spectacular locations in the city. When it came to Committee, it prompted a range of questions about its design. Yet again, we were told there was nothing we could do about it. With hindsight and experience, I now know this is not strictly true, but when the development is being delivered by a major landowner and is costing vast sums of money, the implication had always been that the cost to the developer and the embarrassment to the planning department was too high to warrant a change at the late stage of Planning Committee. However, being part of a decision-making process to validate (at times) ugly buildings in the city is not why I joined the Planning Committee, much less chair it.

Plymouth City Council, like many others, declared a Climate Emergency in March 2019. Using the Planning Committee as a vehicle to help the city alleviate this was also high up my agenda. I wanted to ensure the Committee could continue pushing for development to be as environmentally sustainable as possible.

Plymouth has the potential to change Administration again in May 2022. I knew I had just a year to affect change. To see planning permissions granted for landmark and strategic projects that are more ambitious in design quality and form, push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of the environment and sustainability, and enhance amenity for the local community.

The question was, how to achieve this.

Plymouth has an award-winning planning department. We also have some brilliant, beautiful and cutting-edge buildings – the Roland Lewinsky Building, The Box, The Sherwell Centre to name a few. Indeed, before Christmas I attended the tri-annual awards ceremony to celebrate exciting design and development in the city – the Abercrombie Awards. However, I firmly believed we could raise the ambition bar even higher.

Following my appointment as chair, every conversation I had with a senior council officer, including with the Chief Executive, included my desire to see excellent, ambitious design and environmental sustainability at the heart of planning permissions. I wanted developers to be held to account as they brought their schemes for the city forward. And I finally found the person who could help me deliver this.

Speaking with colleagues from around the country, I knew that some councils have an opportunity for councillors to comment on schemes before they came to Committee. Speaking to our Service Director, it turned out we had a mechanism within the Council’s Constitution to do this and with guidance on how to do it set out in the Planning Committee Code of Good Practice, we were good to go.

Allow me to introduce our Pre-Application Members Briefings.

Granted, not the most exciting name, but they do what it says on the tin. At least quarterly, all Council members are invited to a meeting where large or landmark developments are presented at pre-application stage followed by a Q&A with the developer. Whilst committee members must be particularly careful not to pre-determine an application, the whole premise of the process is to provide the developer and applicant with a sense of how the city views their proposal and hopefully show them where they might want to improve and enhance elements relating to design, sustainability, and public amenity, before a formal application is made. It provides Planning Officers with back-up as they work with applicants. It also enables member engagement at the pre-application stage where the final application may not be determined by the Planning Committee.

At our first session in the autumn, we were presented with two developments – a new retail park to the north of the city and a new eye hospital. Following some robust questions as to why a building large enough to house two supermarkets had no solar panels on the roof – a big omission as far as councillors were concerned – the developer said he would be going away and looking at how he might be able to incorporate them. Exactly the sort of response I had hoped the meeting would achieve. We also asked questions about how the eye hospital could be as tactile as possible yet also ambitious enough with its public spaces given the fact it’s likely to be a city feature for up to a century.

None of these questions were pre-determining, but instead sought to scrutinise plans and raise the game of developers for the benefit of the city, the environment, and the adults, children, and young people, who live, work or visit Plymouth.

My hope is that through the mechanism of four simple, yet well-timed, meetings a year, Plymouth will benefit from a new generation of landmark buildings that are exceptional in their design, cutting edge in their sustainability, and provide a high value public asset to the city.