How the planning White Paper would change ... design controls

One of the “pillars” of the government's White Paper on planning, published yesterday, is the need to ensure “planning for beautiful and sustainable places” in English towns and cities.

Poundbury in Dorset, a new town employing traditional local design features - image: Marilyn Peddle (CC BY 2.0)
Poundbury in Dorset, a new town employing traditional local design features - image: Marilyn Peddle (CC BY 2.0)

“We want to ensure that we have a system in place that enables the creation of beautiful places that will stand the test of time, protects and enhances our precious environment, and supports our efforts to combat climate change and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050,” the document says.

The planning system should “foster high quality development - not just beautiful buildings, but the gardens, parks and other green spaces in between”, and “generate net gains for the quality of our built and natural environments”, it adds.

In doing this, it should “reflect local character and community preferences, and the types of buildings and places that have stood the test of time”, yet also “address modern lifestyles, and facilitate modern methods of construction and [their] benefits for efficiency, build quality and the environment”.

To achieve this, it says the National Design Guide, published last October, is “a vital starting point”, but adds that “broad principles need to be turned into more specific standards” - for which it will publish a National Model Design Code this autumn, complementing a “revised and consolidated” Manual for Streets along with local guides and codes.

For this, the government is looking at establishing a new expert body to “help authorities make effective use of design guidance and codes”.

Following the call by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission earlier this year for a “fast-track for beauty”, the government proposes updating the National Planning Policy Framework so that schemes which comply with local design guides and codes “have a positive advantage and greater certainty about their prospects of swift approval”.

It also proposes that site-specific design codes and masterplans within designated “Growth” zones, prepared either by the local planning authority or the site promoter, are first agreed “as a condition of the permission in principle”.

Meanwhile, extending permitted development should enable “popular and replicable forms of development to be approved easily and quickly, helping to support ‘gentle intensification’ of our towns and cities”, the document says. It adds that “pattern books”, setting out standard design forms, “have helped to deliver some of our most popular and successful places, and in a way which makes it relatively easy for smaller development companies to enter the market”, and says it plans to revive this tradition in designated “Renewal” areas, “by allowing the pre-approval of popular and replicable designs through permitted development”.

The government also plans to develop “a limited set of form-based development types that allow the redevelopment of existing residential buildings”, so “enabling increased densities while maintaining visual harmony”. This would apply to its recently announced extensions of permitted development to include upwards extensions and demolition-plus-rebuilding, which would have to take local or national design codes into account in order to gain prior approval.

And on so-called green infrastructure, the government proposes, via changes to the NPPF,  to make all new streets tree-lined. “We are also assessing the extent to which our planning policies and processes for managing flood risk may need to be strengthened,” it adds.

It says the current process for assessing the environmental impact of developments “can lead to duplication of effort and overly-long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays”, and proposes measures to streamline this.

The white paper also proposes to review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, “to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change”.

Lastly on energy sustainability, the government wants new homes to produce 75-80 per cent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels, and to be capable of eventually becoming “fully zero-carbon homes” without further retrofitting. A government response to its Future Homes Standard consultation is due shortly, but the response to the current consultation “will look to clarify the role that [local planning authorities] can play in setting energy efficiency standards for new build developments”, the white paper says.

Summarised, the key proposals are:

  • For design guidance and codes, prepared locally with community involvement, to then be “more binding on decisions about development”;

  • To move to a planning system based on such codes, which is then “more visual and rooted in local preferences and character”, with each authority having a “chief officer for design and place-making”.

  • To strengthen non-departmental public body Homes England, so it can “give greater emphasis to delivering beautiful places”; 

  • To “fast-track for beauty” by “incentivising and accelerating high quality development which reflects local character and preferences”;

  • To design a “quicker, simpler” framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities;

  • To make “ambitious” improvements in energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver net-zero by 2050.

Issues on which the consultation seeks responses are:

  • The design quality of recent developments that have already been completed;

  • What sustainability goals should be prioritised in future, such as fewer cars, more trees and green spaces, or greater energy efficiency;

  • The further production and use of design guides and codes;

  • Whether to set up a new body to support design coding and building better places;

  • Whether each authority should have a chief design and place-making officer;

  • Whether Homes England should have a greater role in setting design standards.

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