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05/04/2021

Why a national design code paves the way for better design locally

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The new National Model Design Code can provide a foundaiton for improving design and creating better living places, argues Jane Dann

Proposed changes to the NPPF reinforce its emphasis on design quality and placemaking, requiring local planning authorities to prepare “design guides or codes” consistent with the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code (NMDC), published in draft along with Guidance Notes for Design Codes (GNDC).

Until recently, design codes have mainly been used for proposals involving significant change or development, the evidence showing that they help deliver design quality. Now the NMDC promotes a different, essentially district-wide approach, supported by the GNDC, which identifies potential topics that may be included in a design code.

Its three-stage process – Analysis, Vision and Coding – is important. Analysis is critical, especially if we are to code for smaller-scale change in existing contexts. Vision is fundamental – without knowing what we want to achieve we cannot tell if a code will deliver it. And coding is the conclusion to the process, not an end in itself.

“There is more flexibility than is immediately apparent” 

At the heart of the NMDC is the concept of area types. It proposes classifying, say, all villages or outer suburbs within a district into a single category with a shared local design code. Does this presume a common vision for local areas of this type? And will common design code requirements be appropriate for distinct places that fall into an area type? If engagement is to underpin codes, will communities want to see a place-specific rather than an area-type based code? And how will area types interact with the mooted planning system reform classification by growth, renewal or protection?

However, there is more flexibility than is immediately apparent, with references to ‘design codes and guides’, a choice to code for a district, selected parts of a district, or development sites only, and area types also being optional. This will enable local authorities to find their own route through some of the questions, and balance the effort that goes in and the benefit that comes out of a code or guide.

Resources, together with certainty in the light of planning reform, are likely to be key factors for many but so too is the right approach for each place. How best to balance local design priorities, challenges and community aspirations and create a workable code or guide?  

Following this framework, with appropriate time, support, consultation and consideration should influence our approach, enable positive steps towards improving design quality and creating good places. 

Jane Dann is director of Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design

Image credit | Shutterstock

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