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13/01/2021

Local design codes – a new application for coding?

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The government's white paper proposal to introduce design codes presents a challenge to England's planning system. But they can work if they meet a number of criteria, argues Jane Dann

The 2020 planning white paper proposes a new system of local plans based on zoning – categorising land for ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or as ‘protected’. It also raises the profile of design guides or codes to set clear expectations for design quality, beauty and sustainability. How will these two aspects work together to result in better places?

National planning policy has supported the use of design codes since 2006. And the 2020 Place Alliance Housing Audit confirmed their benefits in practice, finding them “the most effective means to positively influence design quality”.

The white paper states that design codes should start from the National Design Guide and the forthcoming National Model Design Code, but be prepared locally and reflect local character and community engagement.

“Design codes will need to be created with the right balance of prescription and flexibility”

For larger developments in growth areas, it envisages that design codes will be prepared along with a masterplan, broadly as now. In renewal areas, suitable for smaller-scale developments, a new type of local design coding may govern the appropriate form and nature of change.

In both types of area, to secure design quality as well as providing more certainty, design codes will need to be:

  • Based on a shared vision for a place. This will be as important for renewal areas – where sites may not be identified in advance – as for growth areas, where masterplans and codes will define and deliver a site-specific vision.
  • Supported by a robust characterisation that identifies local character and defines the components that are important to it, with a focus on spatial character as well as the details of a place.  
  • Prepared with communities, with input from technical stakeholders on matters such as highways, drainage, arboriculture and ecology.
  • Clear, precise and unambiguous. The white paper also identifies design coding to enable a fast-track for beauty, both for large developments in growth areas and in renewal areas, where certain proposals that comply with ‘pattern book’ requirements may fall within permitted development.
  • Created with the right balance of prescription and flexibility so they provide more certainty without stifling development or creative design… Design parameters will need careful formulation to make sure they retain and enhance local distinctiveness.

Jane Dann is managing director of Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design

Image credit | iStock

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