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National Design Guide – Laudable in Objective, but Questions Remain


By Julian Seymour, Managing Director – Planning Communications

Bringing more beauty into planning is a laudable ambition by any objective standard. Who doesn’t want more beauty? Who thinks it would be a bad thing? Who thinks it would be bad for the image of the industry?

The obvious answer is – nobody. The principle has been broadly welcomed in all corners, from RICS to CPRE.

But the questions are then how can we deliver it in a practical and sensible way? And how can it fit with our existing planning system?

The Government has made a good start on the first question, producing a Model Design Code, which points authorities towards the production of their own Code, and starts to formalise the factors which should be considered and standardised. We can’t pretend to be experts in the field of design, but we understand from people who are, that the model code is well thought out and puts in place a solid foundation.

So, can the code – can beauty – fit within the existing planning system? This is a far more difficult challenge and there remain some questions to be answered. The Government’s initial response is twofold:

  1. Revisions to the NPPF to ensure beauty is part of the document, and these changes will certainly lend some weight to bringing beauty into the planning balance. For example, making clear that development which is “not well designed should be refused”.
  2. To create an Office for Place “within a year” which will provide resources and which will help to oversee the introduction of the design code.

In addition, the Government will pilot the changes to 20 communities which will be able to share in a £500,000 funding pot before a wider roll out.

And perhaps this additional share of funding is the main point for authorities – funding and resources.

Local authorities have responded heroically to the demands made by Government over the past decade, becoming leaner and more efficient while trying to protect core services. During the current COVID crisis they have shouldered a lot of the burden of delivering services directly to their communities, often far over and above what the government has mandated. But as other requirements have soared, their capacity to do other things has shrunk. In particular, planning departments have become more stretched and specialists in urban and landscape design have been often given up or are shared with neighbouring authorities.

Leaving aside beauty for a moment, should it be implemented, some of the suggestions in the White Paper will place further demands on resources, with accelerated delivery of Local Plans, moves to digitisation and extensive consultation processes.

If the latest changes and code get implemented, authorities will not only have to develop a design code for themselves, which will require extensive consultation and officer time, but they will also have to police it and amend it. They will have to ensure that the code does not simply become another barrier to development, particularly in areas with lower values where the “cost” of beauty could threaten the viability of schemes and reduce their ability to meet housing targets, or areas which have more concerns about development.

The demand on resources is not just restricted to policy development and implementation. The perhaps unexpected requirement that all new roads must be tree lined has caused almost as much concern as those trees will have to be managed and cut – an ongoing cost most councils want to avoid. We are promised that further information on funding for trees will be provided in the England Tree Strategy which will be published in the coming months, so watch this space.

Resources aren’t the only issue though. There is an open question about how the proposed new code will work together with the White Paper, should its recommendations come forward, and with the newly introduced Permitted Development Rights which have the potential to transform town centres in the future and over which local authorities have little control. These issues still have to be flushed out.

Still more questions revolve around how the code will sit within the planning balance. Will it trump five-year land supply? Could it be a Very Special Circumstance to unlock a Green Belt site? How does it fit with the requirements of highways authorities (not least the common complaint of design driven by the turning circles of rubbish trucks)? In reality these issues will probably be tested in court and we will have to wait to see.

But but but – in the meantime, if you want to find out more, there is a way. Our colleague Steve Quartermain will be in conversation with Andy Von Bradsky, Head of Architecture at MHCLG, next week – so watch this space.

Ps – we will be following up this article with more comment about the requirements for consultation by authorities and developers.

National Design Guide – Laudable in Objective, but Questions Remain