New national design code must be 'selective', says guide consultant

The government's new national model design code will need to be "selective" in the advice it offers given the variety of development across the country, a consultant who helped create the government's recently-published National Design Guide has advised.

Tibbalds' Jane Dann (second right) at the Planning for Housing Conference
Tibbalds' Jane Dann (second right) at the Planning for Housing Conference

Jane Dann, director of consultancy Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, was speaking at the Planning's Planning for Housing conference in central London this morning in a session on design.

Tibbalds, along with government advisor the Design Council, was commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to draw up the National Design Guide, which was published in October.

According to the government, the new guide "illustrates how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice". 

The guide forms part of updated planning guidance on design and says 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". 

The guide also says the MHCLG will publish a new national model design code for consultation in early 2020, "setting out detailed standards for key elements of successful design".

The guide advises councils that they will be expected to develop their own design codes or guides in accordance with the national code.

Dann said: "There's obviously quite a significant challenge because [the code] needs to be able to deal with a lot of very different situations, from a very small village in Cornwall to the centre of a major city like london. So it needs to cover quite a broad spectrum." 

"I struggle to think how it could encapsulate the whole spectrum of character and variety and scale of development across the whole country. It can't deal with everything so it will need to be selective."

Dann said she expected the document to be a less prescriptive kind of code, and not a "site-based code" which aims to realise a specific design vision.                                                                               

Dann suggested that the code could help planning authorities improve the design and arrangement of streets, which she said presented particular challenges.

She said: "It could almost have a library of acceptable arrangements of street widths, footways, scale and location of buildings, or a catalogue of different situations. 

"I think we might be able to overcome a lot of the issues that we have around how highways are handled. Streets are often places that are very difficult to get right."

Elsewhere, Dann said the national guide was "very much aimed at good placemaking" and was "much broader" than just the quality of architecture. 

"I think creating places is what we should be aiming for and not just the detail of architecture.

She also said the guide was concerned with "innovation" and tried to anticipate future challenges for planners that are not yet government policy, including driverless cars and climate change.

Also speaking at the session was Kevin Parker, the groupmaster planning director at housebuilder Redrow, who said good design could speed up housing delivery.

He said: "I think if you have a shared vision on design, and the National Design Guide should help with this, that that can help speed up decision-making. 

"So when you are sitting round the table with officers, you are talking about the same set of characteristics and there's not subjectivity creeping in. 

"If you can take two to three months off the decision-making process, that can speed up delivery."

Meanwhile, Mark Skilbeck, UK planning director for land and planning at housebuilder Taylor Wimpey, said a lack of local authority resources was a problem when it came to addressing design. 

He said: "There's definitely an issue around skills, ability and a lack of resources, and the need for more funding for local authorities to appoint design review panels and design advisiors where necessary."

He said planning performance agreements (PPAs), where developers pay for a speeded-up development management service, were increasingly being used by authorities to pay for such skills.

But he added: "If we're going to pay for extra specialist skills, we expect something in return, in terms of the quality and make-up of the panel and quicker and more efficient decison-making."

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