How the new national design guidance changes the system: the Planning Briefing

How planning guidance on design has changed and what it, and the new National Design Guide, means for you. By Mark Wilding.

Design: new guide published last month
Design: new guide published last month

On 1 October, the government published its inaugural National Design Guide alongside newly-updated Planning for England Practice Guidance (PPG) on design. Below, we summarise five key changes introduced by the two documents and examine the practical implications for applicants and local authorities.

A new national design guide

What is new

The government said the new guide "illustrates how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice". According to the guide, it is intended to underpin paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which states that permission "should be refused for development of poor design". According to a statement issued by the Conservative Party shortly before its publication, the design guide "will have genuine clout and be capable of being a material consideration in planning applications and appeals, meaning that local planning authorities should take it into account when taking decisions".

The guide summarises the government’s priorities for well-designed places in the form of ten considerations: context; identity; built form; movement; nature; public spaces; uses; homes and buildings; resources; and lifespan. On "built form", the guide says well-designed places "are walkable" and make "efficient use of land with an amount and mix of development and open space that optimises density". The "uses" section states that neighbourhoods "need to include an integrated mix of tenures and housing types that reflect local housing need and market demand".

Practical implications

Commentators observed that, while the design guide does not radically change government policy, it may serve to elevate the importance of design in planning decisions. Clare Eggington, associate planner at consultancy Pegasus Group, says: "The NPPF has got a number of policies on design. This adds a lot more detail and gives it much more of a public profile." Likewise, architect and planning consultant Peter Studdert says: "A lot of what it says about good placemaking can already be found in other places. What the design guide has done has pulled it all together and given it official backing from this government."

Both Eggington and Studdert observe that the ten characteristics outlined in the guide will help applicants prepare design and access statements. "It is a very useful checklist," says Eggington. Jonathan Bainbridge, planning associate at consultancy Bidwells, adds: "It sets a fairly rigid framework in which to prepare your design analysis."

The guide is likely to require planning authorities to engage more widely on the design process, according to Peter Dawson, built environment manager at Place Services, a division of Essex County Council which delivered the new Essex Design Guide. "One of the most significant changes for planners is the need to work more collaboratively with a wider range of stakeholders such as health practitioners and the emergency services," he says, adding that this may put additional pressure on stretched planning teams.

However, Malcolm Brown, director of town planning at property firm Sibbett Gregory, warned that the new guide "has handed planning authorities 70 pages of reasons for refusal". He says: "Sentences like ‘design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area’ will be used to reject schemes by officers who fail to appreciate that most of the public do not want change and prefer the familiar. This guidance will result in longer delays in validating and determining planning applications."

The introduction of national and local design codes

What is new

A National Model Design Code will be published for consultation in early 2020, "setting out detailed standards for key elements of successful design", according to the design guide. The code will be informed by the findings of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, whose final report is due to be published in December this year. The design guide says the code will set a "baseline standard of quality and practice" to be taken into account by local authorities when developing local design policies and determining planning applications.

The guide states that "specific, detailed and measurable criteria for good design are most appropriately set out at the local level" and advises councils that they will be expected to develop their own design codes or guides in accordance with the national code. Local design guides and codes may include an analysis of street patterns, building proportions, and architectural vernacular, it adds. In the absence of local design guidance, local planning authorities will be expected to defer to the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code.

The design guide distinguishes between a local design guide and a local design code, describing the former as a "document providing guidance on how development can be carried out in accordance with good design practice, often produced by a local authority". The latter, meanwhile, is described as a "set of illustrated design requirements that provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area", which "should build upon a design vision, such as a masterplan or other design and development framework".

Practical implications

The Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners, warns that many already-stretched councils may struggle with new requirements to prepare local design codes. Its place-making specialist, Paul Seddon, says: "The scale of resource needed to properly understand the character of each place is challenging." Commentators in the private sector express similar concerns. Bainbridge says: "We are quite sceptical about whether many authorities will take up [local design codes] given that they don’t typically have sufficient resources and expertise."

Rob Krzyszowski, head of planning at Haringey Council, says that, while the design guide does not formally require local authorities to produce a local design guide or code, the need to defer to national guidance in their absence will create an incentive to do so. Krzyszowski says most councils will have existing design policies, although they may need to be reviewed, and those that don’t should consider producing a a supplementary planning document (SPD). "It’s a nudge and a reminder to have up to date policy and guidance," he says.

Eggington adds that councils’ design SPDs should be checked against the new requirements. "Are they still up to date?" she said.

Andrew Raven, urban design director at consultancy Savills, says applicants should play an "integral part" in the preparation of local design codes. "They are the ones who end up delivering the stuff," he says.

Design at outline stage and ensuring the quality of completed schemes

What is new

The PPG on design has been updated to include several new and expanded sections. These include a newly-added section saying how local authorities can deal with the design of projects at outline permission stage and "ensure the quality of approved development is not materially diminished between permission and completion".

Local authorities are advised that design can be considered at outline stage to "assist community engagement" and "provide a framework for the preparation and submission of reserved matters proposals". The guidance states that councils can agree a design code with applicants that will inform decisions on reserved matters applications.

Guidance is also provided on how to ensure post-consent design quality is maintained as schemes progress towards completion. Authorities are advised to ensure applications to amend schemes or discharge conditions "do not undermine development quality". Furthermore, local authorities are advised they may consider steps such as "using design review at appropriate intervals" and "encouraging the retention of key design consultants from the planning application team". Finally, the guidance stresses the importance of site inspections to verify compliance with approved plans.

Practical implications

Bainbridge advises that most strategic developments will already be accompanied by a design code. "For schemes that merit an outline application, these kinds of issues would normally be addressed," he says. Eggington agrees that considering design at the outline stage is already established good practice. However, she believes "there’s far more emphasis now" on this, but adds that the extent to which it is effective will depend on how well the guidance requirements are enforced.

"It’s unusual for a final scheme to be different to the approval," says Bainbridge, noting that authorities have powers to take enforcement action if developments aren’t completed in accordance with approved drawings. However, Raven says many schemes are never reviewed for compliance and warns of potential conflict with resource needs and other policy requirements. "Often the problem is councils don’t have the resources to take action and they need developments to continue because of their five year housing land supply," he says.

Expanded guidance on community engagement

What is new

A new section on "effective community engagement" has been added to the design PPG. It states: "Local planning authorities and applicants are encouraged to proactively engage an inclusive, diverse and representative sample of the community, so that their views can be taken into account in relation to design."

The guidance states that authorities and applicants should consider how to maximise opportunities for communities to participate in discussions about design, "working with established organisations or groups within the community and holding events at a time and location that are accessible". A list of tools that can be used to engage communities is provided: design workshops; community panels or forums; exhibitions; and digital methods such as the use of social media and gaming platforms to reach "younger audiences".

Practical implications

Eggington observes that community engagement is already well-established and, in relation to local design policies, takes place to a certain extent through the preparation of neighbourhood plans. However, she says the design guidance is "raising that up the national agenda", but warns of the prospect of "design by committee" which could stifle innovation.

Studdert says the way in which communities will influence discussions will be informed by the findings of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. "It needs to be backed up by resources," he adds. Raven says the commission must deal with difficult questions around community input: "Who is going to judge what’s beautiful? Who has the training to make those decisions?"

The importance of design review

What is new

Further detail is provided on what the government believes to be "effective" design review, the process in which a panel of built environment experts are called upon to assess development proposals. Guidance states the process should ensure schemes "work for the benefit of the public and reflect relevant local and national design objectives", be "representative, diverse and inclusive", and include "mechanisms to represent the views of local communities and other stakeholders". Authorities and applicants are advised that "design review is most effective when applied at the earliest stage of design development" but "can be followed up at further stages as projects evolve".

Practical implications

Krzyszowski says local authorities will welcome this "explicit support from the government" for the design review process. Studdert says more councils are "waking up to the value" of free developer- funded design review and that applicants are willing to pay for it. He says both authorities and applicants will benefit from "more detail on the role of design review, the importance of design review and how it should be managed". However, Raven says authorities must develop in-house expertise in addition to review panels. "Every planning officer should be able to judge design," he says.

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