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19/11/2020

Planning for the Future: Your views on design codes

Words: Laura Edgar

Design guides and codes are generally supported by built environment organisations, but questions remain about how prescriptive they would be and the extent to which local authorities will be sufficiently resourced in order to deliver local codes.

Planning for the Future, the government's planning white paper, proposes that local planning authorities and neighbourhoods (through neighbourhood plans) would produce design guides and codes to provide certainty and reflect local character and preferences about the form and appearance of development.

It also proposes:

  • To make design expectations more visual and predictable, the government will expect design guidance and codes to be prepared locally with community involvement, and ensure that codes are more binding on decisions about development.
  • To support the transition to a planning system which is more visual and rooted in local preferences and character, the government will set up a body to support the delivery of provably locally-popular design codes, and propose that each authority should have a chief officer for design and place-making.

RTPI

The RTPI supports a "greater" role for national and local design codes - they can improve the quality and sustainability of new development by supporting early engagement but they should "not be so prescriptive as to stifle innovation".

The institutes makes a number of recommendations for achieving effective and consistent use of design codes, including:

  • The use of site-specific design codes followed by design review. Site-specific codes can be produced incrementally as and when sites come forward for development, therefore communities can be engaged in their production, something that would be unlikely to happen for local authority-wide codes.
  • Design codes should minimise requirements for heating, cooling and power through influencing density, layout and orientation, building fabric and  onsite technologies.
  • Design codes should support the principles of Integrated Water Management and the delivery of blue/green infrastructure, including multifunctional sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).
  • Sufficient time and resources for local authorities to invest in the preparation of design codes, including in-house design skills.

The RTPI supports the commitment to deliver a new design body in principle but the consultation response to the white paper states that details around how the body works in practice and supports local planning authorities' delivery of improved outcomes on design are critical.

The full response can be found here (pdf).

Buckinghamshire Council

The council explains that currently, it is an "uphill struggle" to persuade housebuilders to reflect local design preferences, given their "business model is so heavily tied to the use of a standard scale-able house types".

"This creates a system which  too  often  delivers  anonymous  and  relatively  indistinct  estates. A strengthened role for design guides  and codes may assist in this, but will not achieve meaningful change without proper resourcing of local authorities," the response states.

The council warns that if national design guidance is to be produced, local character and preferences would be overwritten by top-down guidance. This would have the "opposite effect of the government’s intention, creating standard places with no appreciation of local context".  

There is a concern that the proposals risk turning planning into a “planning by numbers” exercise.

"It is the collaboration and partnerships that should be fostered, not turning the system into a “top down” dictation of standards."

Buckinghamshire Council supports in principle the suggestion that each local authority should have a place-making officer but questions whether this places a new burden on local authorities and how it would be resourced.

The full response can be read here (pdf).

Design Council

The proposals to introduce design guides and codes to the planning system are supported overall. They are critical for placemaking and help developers, designers and local authorities proactively plan for new communities, said Design Council.

"They are not a panacea, however, and need to be carefully thought through and embedded into a design-led system to be effective."

Further clarity is required so design codes do add value and weight to a broader system that holistically enables and regulates for design quality, the response explains.

For Design Council, "there is a risk that design codes alone may be too constrained as an approach – crowding out opportunities for good placemaking, holistic design thinking and meaningful engagement. They need to be better related to neighbourhood plans too, to ensure communities’ efforts over the last 10 years are captured and protected within a new system."

New guidance and design codes must be embedded in local plans and they must be developmed with the local community. They should be flexible to allow for change over time but specific enough "to ensure that bad design doesn’t slip through the net".

The full response can be found here (pdf).

Tibbalds Planning & Urban Design

The consultancy says that a national design guide and the forthcoming national design code should "go a long way" towards framing the scope and content of local guides and codes.

Thought is required on what the criteria should be for producing bespoke or place-based local guides, such as should they be brought forward for a certain scale of sites and should they be submitted and approved ahead of design related reserved matters. In addition, "careful thought" needs to be given to how the documents will be monitored in order to ensure compliance.

Tibbalds "endorse wholeheartedly" the appointment of a chief officer for design and placemaking.

Such officers must have the appropriate skills and have experience of the actual process of delivering good design and of understanding the complexities of design delivery, the response explains.

Barratt Homes

The housebuilder welcomes the government's emphasis on "popular design" and suggests house builders and developers are "generally best placed to determine the most appropriate design approach and product for a site and taking account of constraints, opportunities and customer aspirations".

The standardisation of designs via pattern books is "cautiously" welcomed but Barratt has concerns about whether design codes would "limit the use of our standard house types which have been carefully designed to be high quality, in line with customer expectations and demonstrably popular in design terms".

Noting that growth areas would be accompanied by a masterplan and design codes, Barratt said it is important that house builders are involved in the process of producing design codes.

It suggests that the government consider the resources required to produce local design guides and codes and calls for them to not be too prescriptive, because this would restrict development coming forward.

"Many local planning authorities have design teams, which is where real support and value can be added in terms of achieving good design, however they are often seriously under-resourced and this needs to be addressed if the policy is to achieve its objectives," the response states.

A chief officer for design and placemaking would, for the housebuilder, "likely replicate the delays and confusion caused by CABE prior to their abolition". Instead, Barratt suggest that further money should be given to local planning authorities to fund the LPA design skills, "which is where the greatest impact and value can be delivered,  in terms of assuring good design".

New London Architecture (NLA)

NLA raise questions over the scope and prescriptiveness of design codes as well local authority resourcing.

Design guides and codes have played a role in developing of London, the NLA response states, to creat locally distinctive areas. But, there is a lack of detail in Planning for the Future on how prescriptive new design codes and guides would be – "whether they enable a framework for interpretation and creativity, or a prescriptive approach to design".

"London is a city of villages with many distinctive areas, and we must ensure that design guides can be appropriately applied. This would again require significant resourcing within local authorities," the NLA states.

It supports the proposal for every local authority to have a chief office for design and placemaking but more detail is needed on the remit of the role.

The full response can be found here (pdf).

Image credit | Shutterstock

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