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If design guides are to become a staple of communities, what role can housing play? 


Amid the debate around local design codes prompted by the planning white paper it's worth asking: Is anyone actually doing this already? Yes they are – in Bournville, Birmingham – and they're about to revise their code for the first time in more than 30 years, as Arthur Tsang explains

If you had told me back in January that we would be leading one of the most important consultations Bournville Village Trust has done during a pandemic I would have laughed. Turns out the joke was on me. 

At the beginning of the year, when Covid was barely on the country’s radar, we started work to reimagine our Design Guide for Bournville – the Birmingham village that has been credited with introducing the benefits of open space into modern town planning and the beginnings of the garden village movement. 

It is the most significant review of the document since it was published in 1985 and the review, pandemic aside, couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. With the publishing of the Planning for the Future white paper, the government has placed a new found importance on the development of hyper-local design guides and codes.

Speaking at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Housing 2020, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick MP, said the creation of a planning system fit for the 21st century will mean ‘design codes created by local communities – not just at local authority level, but at neighbourhood or even street level as well.’

So if design guides are to become a staple of our local communities, what role could the housing sector play in developing and delivering these? 

Essential for us in developing a new guide for Bournville has been understanding what residents value today about their neighbourhoods; and being able to move with the ever shifting landscape of sustainability and green agendas. Whilst Covid could have hampered this we adapted our approach to consultation, focusing heavily on online engagement, text messages and emails. 

We wrote to all residents, held socially-distanced pop-ups within their neighbourhoods - to target those who were digitally excluded - and set up a dedicated phone number and email address, all with the aim of reaching as many residents, of different ages, tenures and ethnicities, as possible.

"Ensuring residents play a role in decision making and accountability is a vital part in delivering a design guide"

Our first round of consultation in August saw over 1,200 people share their views not only on what they value about their neighbourhoods but what they feel has had a negative impact on them too. Residents also told us what is important when it comes to managing their areas and what they value about design and sustainability. 

Two thirds told us preserving character and place was very important when it came to managing their neighbourhood but they also had concerns about extensions, parking and paving over front gardens. 

Understanding the needs and wants of communities, even in the middle of a pandemic, it could be argued is the easy part of developing a new design guide. Carefully unpicking, analysing and balancing these needs and wants with regional and national policies, and continuing to develop a beautiful and sustainable Bournville will undoubtedly be the more challenging part of the project.

Ensuring residents play a role in decision making and accountability is a vital part in delivering a design guide. At Bournville Village Trust, residents already act at committee level, using our current design guides to make decisions on appeals for applications for home alterations and to consider planning policies. Not only do they hold us to account but they are empowered to hold their own communities to account too, a powerful combination.

Whilst design guides are important in helping to create and maintain more beautiful, and sustainable neighbourhoods, empowering communities to work together on issues that are important to them, outside of the remit of a design guide, is the key in creating more connected communities – a further focus of the government’s future planning policy. 

In Bournville, we have seen this demonstrated through a low traffic neighbourhoods pilot in which two areas are trialling temporary measures to make walking and cycling easier, safer and supportive of social distancing. 

Residents are at the forefront of the pilot, actively shaping how their community will look and work in the future. They are navigating and managing different opinions on how this will work and it is a great example of community empowerment and leadership in action.    

Whilst feedback on the proposed changes to the planning system are now being considered by government, if design guides are to become a part of our new national approach to design and sustainability, listening to residents and putting them at the centre of their accountability will be key in successfully developing and delivering them.  

Arthur Tsang is director of communities at Bournville Village Trust  

Photo | Bournville Village Trust



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