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What next for local design guidance?

Words: Jane Dann
Well designed houses

Local design guides can add distinctive regional elements to national design guidance and ensure well-designed buildings and places – that reflect community aspirations – become the norm, says Jane Dann

Only nine months ago the UK’s National Design Guide was published, setting out principles to help local authorities achieve beautiful, enduring and successful new developments. Back then, we already thought the guide was landing in turbulent times, in the context of Brexit, Climate Emergency declarations and the biodiversity crisis. 

In just a few months, Covid-19 and its impacts changed our towns and cities even more dramatically. From emptier streets with fewer cars, cleaner air and shuttered premises, and the stronger value we now place on our parks and Green Belts, the pandemic has raised the profile of how we design our communities like never before. 

The key questions now are around good design for everyday life. What difference does the National Design Guide make? Why should local design guides and codes be prepared and how can they build on the national guide? And how should Covid-19 change our thinking when it comes to urban design?

What difference does the National Design Guide make?

The National Design Guide, commissioned by MHCLG as part of the national suite of Planning Policy Guidance (PPG), demonstrates what the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) means by “achieving well-designed places”. This status gives it the strong role of a ‘material consideration’ when assessing planning applications and places an expectation on the built environment sector to work to these standards.

The purpose of good design is defined in the national guide as being for the benefit of people and users of all types and backgrounds – both as individuals and as communities. Good design is not just centred around what a place looks like – aesthetics – but also how users experience it.

“The national guide provides a structure for setting design aspirations early on in the planning process, before the stage of assessing planning applications”

To make these concepts more accessible, the guide is a visual document that shows what good design looks like in pictures, as well as describing it in words and promotes best practice by using images of built examples.

Because it applies to all schemes and places, across England, it sets out the purposes and outcomes of good design, but it doesn’t define how to achieve it in detail - this is for each local area to establish for itself.

The guide focuses on placemaking, setting out 10 characteristics that contribute towards three cross-cutting themes – creating physical character, sustaining community and addressing climate issues.

The 10 characteristics – highlighting new themes


1. Context - enhances the surroundings.

This emphasises that understanding the context is a key starting point for design, using baselines studies - proportionate to the size and complexity of a proposal. It is identified separately because many poor-quality proposals fail to consider it adequately. It includes physical, economic, and social issues including the views of communities.  

2. Identity - attractive and distinctive.

This characteristic says that while it may be appropriate to reflect the existing identity, it is not always the right thing to do. Sometimes creating a new identity may be more suitable – for instance where the scale of a development may be very different from its context. Identity also includes visual attractiveness or “beauty”.  

3. Built form - a coherent pattern of development.

4. Movement - accessible and easy to move around.

5. Nature - enhanced and optimised.

Broader than open spaces or soft landscape, this includes nature in all of its forms, with a focus on water management and biodiversity. Contact with nature is important to our health and well-being, and natural features also contribute significantly to addressing climate issues.

6. Public spaces - safe, social and inclusive.

7. Uses - mixed and integrated.

8. Homes and buildings - functional, healthy and sustainable.

9. Resources - efficient and resilient.

Includes following the energy hierarchy to reduce resource requirements, careful selection of materials and construction techniques and maximising resilience.

10. Lifespan - made to last.

Lifespan is about making sure that stewardship is considered from an early stage. It means designing places to be adaptable to changing needs and changing lifestyles over time and promoting a sense of ownership and belonging for occupants.

Why prepare local design guides and codes?

There is growing evidence for the benefits of good design – both to make new development more acceptable to communities and to contribute to social, economic and environmental value.

The 2019 Housing Audit shows clearly that all too often our larger housing developments are failing to achieve this. One in five of the schemes audited should have been refused planning permission and the design of many others improved before permissions were granted. It also identified design codes as being an effective tool for achieving good design.

The national guide provides a structure for setting design aspirations early on in the planning process, before the stage of assessing planning applications. Crucially, it recognises that design quality does not look the same across the country. Different places have distinctive patterns of development, local vernacular and other building traditions. Local design guides and codes set clear and detailed parameters as a benchmark for design quality in a local area.

“It identifies local issues and aspirations, ensuring they are properly targeted, and creates consensus around what good design means”

In its Living with Beauty report, the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) endorsed the National Design Guide’s aims and contents, strongly encouraging local planning authorities to prepare local design guidance, including area-wide and site-specific codes in line with “evidence of local preferences”. Another of its recommendations, a National Design Unit, enjoys cross-sector support and would be a valuable resource to support and enable best practice in preparing local guides and codes.

How can local design guides and codes build on the national guide?

The process of preparing design guides and codes raises awareness around the importance of design. It identifies local issues and aspirations, ensuring they are properly targeted, and creates consensus around what good design means. And it improves confidence around design while making planning decisions more predictable. This makes a big difference to their effectiveness. Local people play a key role – their input ensures guidance is right for a local area, creating a shared understanding and supporting the benefits of good design.

"Design guides with local support can change the culture and expectations for design in a place"

Design guides with local support can change the culture and expectations for design in a place. This was perhaps first demonstrated in Birmingham 30 years ago following the adoption of the Birmingham Urban Design Studies, but also in many other places, and through measures such as appeal decisions.

The national guide provides an overarching framework for local design guides and codes. Just as local plan policies and neighbourhood plans should not duplicate each other’s policies, local design guides and codes don’t need to duplicate the content of the national guide. Rather, they should come up with more specific and detailed design requirements that meet the priorities of local communities.

How Covid-19 could affect design

Increasing emphasis on nature for health and wellbeing– more greenery and open spaces on streets, larger gardens, places for growing. 

How we access outside spaces for people to spend time, whether from the same households or in wider groups, socially distanced or otherwise.

Thresholds and interfaces between public and private – front gardens and between private areas – for example, across garden fences.

Designing to enable ‘weak’ social interactions in low risk ways.

Compact forms of development – with gentle density and balanced by external space.

Generous public space for pedestrians and cyclists and reduced dependence upon the private car for local journeys. 

Walking and cycling neighbourhoods that are less reliant on public transport in the short term, but the capability to introduce it when a vaccine for Covid-19 is created. 

Five questions to help shape a brief for local design guidance

1. What is the purpose of the guidance? 

Be clear about why you are preparing your local design guide and what you are aiming to achieve. Do you want to set a prescriptive baseline that planning applications must not fall below, or are you aiming to raise aspirations by celebrating local best practice?

Identify the problem you are trying to solve. Is it the architecture that lets down the quality and character of new development, or the street scene as a whole? Is there a lack of confidence about asking for better quality design in your local area? Or a lack of understanding about what it is appropriate to ask for at different stages of the design and planning process?

Different places will have different priorities – for instance, sensitivity of character, promoting health and wellbeing, safety and security or addressing flood issues.

Example: Hull Residential Design Guide (see below)

2. What type of guidance is appropriate? 

Design guides can apply to all development proposals across a local authority. They can also be focused on a particular topic – say public realm, or a specific audience – such as householders, in which case the style and content needs to target the guide’s users. As the focus of a guide narrows, its guidance can become more specific and more measurable.

Design codes are defined in the NPPF as “a set of illustrated design requirements that provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area. The graphic and written components of the code should build upon a design vision, such as a masterplan or other design and development framework for a site or area.”

They are well-suited to coordinating the design of developments that may be built out over time, with a number of different developers, phases or design teams. They can set clear requirements to provide a level of consistency between many different developments in a specific area. And may also form the basis for a Local Development Order.

Example: Good Quality Homes for all Londoners

3. Who will prepare the guidance? And who will they engage with?

Both local planning authorities and Neighbourhood Forums may publish local design guides or codes. A guide or code may be produced internally, by consultants, or in partnership with other bodies, such as parish councils or amenity societies.

Whoever takes the lead, it is important to engage widely so that the design guide has a broad base of support – including with officers, members, parish councils, neighbourhood forums; property forums, amenity societies, residents associations, access groups, architects, developers and local communities.

Working in partnership can add value to a local design guide. For example, it may bring in-depth local knowledge and understanding together with a consultant’s broad experience of design guides in practice.

Example: Nottingham Wellbeing Guide

4. What is the right evidence base? 

The evidence base needs to relate to the priorities identified for the guide or code. The National Design Guide says that local design guides and codes need to be underpinned by a baseline understanding of the context and an analysis of local character and identity. Amongst other things, this may include the relationship between the natural and built environments, typical patterns and characteristics of built form, street pattern, buildings in relation to spaces, local vernacular and architecture.

A characterisation is a helpful starting point, so long as it focuses on urban or townscape character as much as on landscape character. For design guidance, a characterisation needs to analyse and define the distinctive character it identifies, rather than simply describing it. It is also vital to understand how local communities perceive character or identity and what they value, either as part of the characterisation itself, or alongside it.

Example: Harestone Valley and Woldingham Design Guidance

5. How can we make it a practical and useful tool?

A local design guide needs to be clear and easy-to-use – a handy resource rather than a document that sits on the shelf. Its format and design need careful consideration so that it suits its users and audience. How do people navigate around it? Is it written in a way that people can understand? And is it clear what each image is intended to illustrate?

Workshops can be an effective and fun way to test a draft guide. They may apply the guide to planning applications that have already been decided. By bringing together different groups who have been involved in preparing the guide they can also share knowledge and understanding of the planning and development process.

Example: Homes and Neighbourhoods: A Guide to Designing in Bradford

How does COVID-19 change things?

The National Design Guide encourages all in the development industry to look ahead and anticipate change, and so continues to be highly relevant even with all the challenges we face today. There is little doubt that our patterns of life will alter radically as result of the current crisis, but we must not lose sight of other important issues that will shape good design for years to come.

Jane Dann is managing director of Tibbalds Planning and Design

Examples of design guides and codes

Hull Residential Design Guide (SPD)

A city-wide guide to the design of new housing, prepared by Hull Council in partnership and with advisory input from architects, engineers, housing associations, voluntary organisations and the local University. This highly visual document is effectively targeted at the development and design team. 

The guidance sets specific criteria and identifies how good design can resolve issues. Its structure follows the design process, from urban design through landscape, streets and spaces, as well as building design. It is beautifully illustrated using tinted architectural line drawings and a selection of best-practice built examples. 

Good Quality Homes for all Londoners (Draft SPG)

Currently still in pre-consultation draft form, this document aims to optimise the number of homes on development sites. Its primary audience is borough officers.

Its four modules include methodologies, worked examples and: 

  • design codes for intensification opportunities on small development sites, including model codes for typical on-street and back-land sites (Module B)
  • housing design quality and standards for planning assessments, including measurable standards and non-measurable assessment criteria (Module C)
  • a library of best-practice case studies (Module D).

Nottingham Wellbeing Design Guide (SPD)

Led by the Nottingham Food Partnership, this is the most recent design guide published under the Council’s Design Quality Framework.

It came out of an Urban Greening Conference co-hosted with the City Council. It is supported by evidence gathered through their ‘Good Living Survey’ on wellbeing and placemaking, which demonstrated that local people wanted action, not just words.

The guidance sets out planning assessment criteria for topics such as nature-first design, food growing spaces and things to do together, accompanied by best-practice case studies and illustrated by inspiring photographs.

Harestone Valley and Woldingham Design Guidance (SPDs)

Two local character assessments and design guides, aiming to identify and preserve the special character in places where local residents were keen for protection from development. Prepared for Tandridge Council and involving officers, parish councillors and local residents.

A robust spatial character assessment defines different character areas, with the analysis identifying the qualities and key features that contribute to local distinctiveness. Place-specific design principles are tailored to each character area.  Local character and design guidance are communicated through photographs and simple diagrams to show what is and isn’t acceptable.

Bradford Homes and Neighbourhoods Design Guide

A go-to manual for house-builders, planning officers and communities, the guide was intended to target specific local problems relating to health, inequality, lack of high-quality open space and poor accessibility in public areas and homes.

The guide is aspirational and visionary, and based on eight priorities that were defined through stakeholder workshops. Engaging owith key stakeholders throughout the project, including all council departments, the research group Born in Bradford, the Bradford Property Forum, a disabled and older people’s group and the Bradford Civic Society, was critical to making the document work for all. The process drew upon their local knowledge and built up their support for the guide.

Top image l iStock