New Design Code, new Design Guide, new approach to Design?

by Richard Anderson

Design Codes have been thrust on the national agenda with intense vigour by the current Government.

Officially termed the “National Model Design Code,” from 20 July this year, still officially “the purpose of the National Model Design Code is to provide detailed guidance on the production of design codes, guides and policies to promote successful design.”

Whilst this has attracted consternation from many involved in the development/design process, Design Codes are not new[1], just the way Central Government has chosen to hand the advice down in a statutory manner from upon high – deregulation/localism?

Taking the latter two words there are many within the industry who believe that this will lead to greater certainty, clarity, consistency, and rapidity when determining planning applications, whilst others see this as a (more) open door to the likes of volume housebuilders with homogeneity and lack of inspiration/local identity when it comes to design.  For the latter, RIBA’s primary concern “is that the proposed reforms place far too much emphasis on external visual appearance and does little to address better design,” there is no focus on “aesthetic integrity.”  On the other hand, for the former, bodies such as Place Alliance pointed to “A Housing Design Audit for England” which found that 54% of new schemes were judged to be “mediocre.” Over to my profession, here the RTPI reported that 87% of its members “did not feel that the planning system has enough control over design at the moment.”

I have been in the industry for over 20 years and have worked in 3 architectural practices. Prior to this Government announcement I have been involved in many procedures and practices when it comes to design and the development process which like the Design Code now have been unavoidable and, in some instances, beneficial.  I have presented before the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), now part of the Design Council and seeing architectural colleagues’ schemes being hauled through Local Planning Authorities’ “Design Review Panels.”  In addition, I have also had my planning applications subject to scrutiny by third party design review groups.  With those critiques, much attention has always been given to design in the development process, the difference this time is that for planning authorities and developers the process is mandatory.  Like it or not, the industry must live with it and hopefully benefit from it.

When working in architectural practices that profession has taken one of two approaches.  Either, especially with conceptual architects, stick grimly to his/her own professional experience and fight the corner (to create often create a bruising encounter with the planning authority further down the line) or make (a few) concessions to assist in easing the planning process with a slightly battered but professional ego remaining.    

I have seen many planning applications refused down to the subjective matter, which is design, it often appearing to be the natural default when no other technical reason can be found.  It is intended that as local planning authorities roll out their own Design Codes the development/design process can be more iterative and less likely to be reached for, as I have said, a default reason for refusal.

On a practical level, back to the here and now (and where).  Two months ago, the Government announced that the 14 planning authorities would benefit from £50,000 to pilot the evolution and production of local design codes.  This £7m is intended to push authorities to recognise and implement recommendations set out in the “Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission” which called on the Government to use design codes and pattern books to enforce good design via the planning system.  So, if you are in or near the following authorities and assuming no “slippage,” a Design Code should be with you by this November:

  • Leeds
  • Guildford
  • Portsmouth
  • Herefordshire
  • Mid Devon
  • Newcastle
  • North West Leicestershire
  • Dacorum
  • Nuneaton and Bedworth
  • Sefton
  • Southwark
  • Colchester
  • Tendring and Essex
  • Hyndburn
  • North West Leicestershire
  • Buckinghamshire

These areas will:

  • Set design principles for new development in local areas
  • Be expected to “enhance the character of local areas – for example by using honey-coloured stone in the Cotswold’s or red brick in the Midlands”
  • Test how to give communities a real say in the layout, design and appearance of building in their area – “helping the country Build Back Better”

Prior to that, and a key tenet of formulating Design Codes, as a resident or interested third party, your views will be requested and the resulting Code should reflect not just local distinctiveness but local stakeholder crafting/drafting (the latter getting some of my architectural colleagues wincing and grimacing even more!).

Interested – more to read …

Cannot forget, there is also “The National Design Guide” which, through ten characteristics also seeks to elevate the subject of design to a higher level …

[1] “Preparing Design Codes: A Practice Manual” – DCLG, 2006

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