What new design guidance means for planners

New guidance on design and a national design guide should put councils in a better position to resist poor-quality proposals, say observers, but they warn it may place new burdens on already-stretched planning teams.

Housing: new guidance intended to boost design quality
Housing: new guidance intended to boost design quality

Earlier this month, the government published its new National Design Guide, alongside a major rewrite of its five-year-old Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on design. The two new documents form part of the government’s recent focus on improving design quality through planning, following a strengthening of requirements in this area in last year’s revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Paragraph 130 of the NPPF states that permission "should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions", taking into account any local design guides or policies. It also says that authorities should seek to ensure that development quality is not "materially diminished" between permission and completion.

The fresh guidance consequently includes advice on how councils can meet this NPPF requirement to ensure that the design quality of approved developments is not watered down after consent is given. It also includes a greater focus on councils carrying out design reviews of projects and engaging with communities in the design process. The accompanying 70-page visual guide, meanwhile, aims to outline and illustrate the government’s "priorities for well-designed places", listing ten characteristics, including context, identity, built form, plus practical examples. The document says it forms part of the design PPG and is based on the NPPF's objectives for good design.  

Ruth Reed, director at planning consultancy Green Planning Studio and former chair of the Royal Institute of British Architects planning group, said both the guide and guidance are meant to underpin each other. She said "There is a lot of concern that developers and councils are meeting the drive for housing numbers and forgetting the quality of design. This is pushing local authorities to have good design guidance and ambition in their local plans." Reed also felt it would allow inspectors examining local plans to challenge any councils that are "determined to ignore design". She said: "If design is brought to their attention, they can then advise councils to amend the policies to take note of national guidance."

Peter Dawson, built environment manager at Place Services, an Essex County Council design services company, said one of the most significant changes introduced by the guide is the suggestion that planners work with a wider range of stakeholders, including health and emergency services on the design process. He said: "The scope for the role of the planner has widened to include and cover a range of specialist subject areas." But he added that this greater level of engagement would put greater pressure on already under-resourced planning teams.

Paul Seddon, Nottingham City Council's director of planning and regeneration and place-making lead at the Planning Officers Society, said the guide should help councils to resist poor quality development proposals. He said: "The fact that it comes from government adds credibility to it, and planning authorities will be able to hold it up in support of their discussions with developers."

But he said more government resourcing for planning department design teams would have a much bigger impact on boosting quality. He said: "The guidance on its own achieves nothing. You need the people and their skills and enthusiasm and commitment to understand a place and to drive change. The scale of resource needed to properly understand the character of each place is challenging." However, the government’s backing for design could help planning departments make the argument to council leadership teams for more money and staffing, he said.

David Birkbeck, chief executive of housing research social enterprise Design for Homes said the new design guide should act as a hepful tool to remind local authorities what to focus on when preparing policies. However, he warned that it might not be specific enough: "It doesn’t yet set enough rules, which is going to leave the door wide open for the wrong response. For example, there is a single line about 'taking cars off the streets’. If a developer comes back with lots of rear courts and undercrofts for parking, where is the design manual line that says that’s not good design?"

But Reed said the document would serve as a framework for councils to draw up more detailed requirements in their own guidance. She said: "This puts into words what designers should set out to achieve. It gives a common language between planners and designers and that is something we haven’t had for a long time." 

New guidance and design guide - five key changes:

  1. The new planning policy guidance says councils can use strategies such as "encouraging the retention of key design consultants from the planning application team and using design review at appropriate intervals" to ensure that the quality of approved development is not diminished between permission and completion
  2. A new section of the guidance encourages planning authorities to better engage communities in the design of their areas. Events such as design workshops can help garner views, it said.
  3. The guidance says that design conditions can be imposed at the outline planning stage, "allowing for the details to be submitted for later determination as part of a reserved matters application".
  4. The National Design Guide advises that well-designed places have "compact forms of development that are walkable, contributing positively to well-being and placemaking" and make "efficient use of land" that "optimises density".
  5. The design guide sets out ten characteristics of well-designed places, covering: context, identity, built form, movement, nature, public spaces, uses, homes and buildings, resources and lifespan.

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