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13/08/2020

Planning for the Future: Training is essential for design codes to bear fruit

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The use of design codes to shape development will require a change in approach – and mindset – from planners if they are to succeed, argues Ben Bolgar. Even then, reform could fail without the right framework for enforcement

Having just read Planning for the Future, my first impression is that there is a lot that aligns directly to the recommendations made in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report, Living with Beauty. However, there are also some rather large gaps raising some fundamental questions.

The basic premise seems to be one of encouraging planners to return to what they are supposed to be doing – spatially planning and creating standards for better places. The paper also aspires to diversify the market by stripping back burdensome bureaucracy at the front end and making land registry and agreements more transparent, thus allowing small and medium-sized enterprises a better chance of securing development opportunities.  

There is also the underlying theme, as set out in Living with Beauty, of allowing communities to influence the character and quality of what ultimately gets built in their local area. Creating mixed-use communities with infrastructure such as shops and businesses is central to placemaking, but gets only a brief mention in the white paper. 

“It is likely that a huge retraining programme is necessary to move from policy writing and mapping to a model that focuses on public engagement, geospatial design, masterplanning, code writing and enforcement”

Having gone through the planning and development process from the perspectives of masterplanner, code enforcer and, more recently, as a developer, I have a great deal of sympathy for what is being proposed here but also some concerns in terms of how it may play out in practice.

The proposed reform places an enormous emphasis on the skills of local planners and their ability to create robust and imaginative spatial framework plans with full public engagement. Having run many Enquiry by Design planning workshops, I know just how much political baggage local planners carry and how easily they can become a target for local dissatisfaction.

At the risk of offending planners (which I certainly don’t wish to do!) it is likely that a huge retraining programme is necessary to move from policy writing and mapping to a model that focuses on public engagement, geospatial design, masterplanning, code writing and enforcement.  

My second major concern is around “cutting red tape but not at the expense of quality”. This relies on the ability of design codes to actually deliver good quality places. The two critical factors here are how well they are written and consulted on, followed by how enforceable they are in practice. 

Code writing is an art in that you essentially have to design spaces and buildings and then abstract them with parametric drawings, precise language and well-judged specifications for details and materials.

For this to work, the national design code needs to outline a process of engagement and a template for what a code should contain. The two elements that typically have teeth are the proportions of streets and facades, and the outline specification of materials and details for the public realm, boundaries and facades. 

Translating historical local precedent into a set of place and building types using modern methods is another art form. While simplicity is often best, a national training programme to help local authorities with these documents will be needed.

“I believe it is fundamental that codes are enforced through land covenants rather than just through planning permissions and policies”

My biggest question, however, would have to be around enforcement. Having witnessed how easy it is for developers to drive a coach and horses through the planning system, I believe it is fundamental that codes are enforced through land covenants rather than just through planning permissions and policies.

If landowners are encouraged to put land in as equity and to get developers to build under license to pre-agreed standards, and then freeholds are transferred directly to purchasers, codes can work incredibly well. 

If, on the other hand, large portions of land are sold off to the highest bidder in the normal fashion with a design code adopted as policy, then enforcement becomes difficult.

Ben Bolgar is an advisor to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

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