Why some design codes work and others fail

Design codes are meant to set rules that new development must meet. The government thinks communities could use them to control the look of local schemes. But some high profile codes have proved impossible to enforce. So what makes for a workable and effective design code?

Design codes used at Newhall in Essex have allowed for a range of design styles. ©Getty Images
Design codes used at Newhall in Essex have allowed for a range of design styles. ©Getty Images

One of the less immediately controversial innovations in last month’s planning white paper was the central role envisaged in the new system for design codes. Historically, codes and pattern books have been the guiding hand behind townscapes such as Bath, Belgravia and Bournville. They have also shaped some of the more successful recent new settlements. The government wants design codes, which are technical documents setting specific design rules that new developments must abide by, to become binding documents against which applications are judged, and through which communities can have their say over how developments will look.

While evidence suggests codes tend to improve development quality, they are still not widely used. So councils will likely need to get a lot more familiar with the concept, as well as work out exactly how codes can be best used to make popular, well-designed places.

The rules set out in design codes can cover anything – from the height of buildings and how far they are set back from the road, to the detailing on window lintels and the colour of recycling stores. But to be successful, says Sue McGlynn, a consultant who has worked on numerous coded schemes as director of her urban design practice, they must define measurable criteria against which adherence can be judged. She says: “They should be simple, with clear words and diagrams that give clear instructions on how to assemble a place.” 

Professor Matthew Carmona, chair of campaign and research group Place Alliance, says its recent Housing Design Audit for England found that schemes which were rated either “good” or “very good” were almost five times as likely to have used design codes as “poor” or “very poor” schemes. “Where they are done well, design codes are clearly the most effective tools for delivering high quality outcomes,” he says. 

However, the white paper says that design codes will need to demonstrate community input to be accorded more weight in the planning system. Former Riba president Ben Derbyshire, founder of residential architect HTA, says: “The key to success is absolutely the depth and quality of engagement”. He cites enquiry-by-design or charette processes, in which community representatives engage in in-depth workshops designed to distil what is distinctive about an area, as effective public participation tools. 

But, he says, the wider community should also have its say, with ballots an effective option. “If the outcome is to be robust, and capable of sustaining challenge,” Derbyshire says, “then the engagement has got to be representative – and provably so.”

However, the technical nature of a code means that design professionals will always be needed to translate a community’s wishes into the code itself. This can result in a tension between what urbanists’ professional experience tells them the essential elements of a code should be – often issues related to placemaking – and those seen as vital by local interest groups, such as architectural style. Codes such as that at the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury development in Dorset strictly control architectural detailing, where others, for example at Newhall in Harlow, Essex, do not.

The desire to be all things to all people can make codes lengthy, generic documents, more akin to design guides, making them both unwieldy and ineffective. Roger Evans, the architect and urban planner behind the Newhall code, says: “The average code is probably 100 pages. It’s far too long.” Sue McGlynn says: “Most are too long and far too descriptive; they lack clarity and don’t have clear metrics. This means the poor old development manager can’t enforce compliance. When they try to hold the developer to it, it’s a mirage.”

This is a vital point, because another question mark against design codes is their enforceability through the planning system. This was exemplified at the 5,000-home Sherford urban extension when the developers – a grouping of Bovis Homes and Linden Homes (now combined as Vistry) and Taylor Wimpey – publicly fell out with the educational charity – the Prince’s Foundation – originally brought in to draw up the design code.

The developers complained that the code was too prescriptive to be practical, and lobbied South Hams District Council to change it. Otherwise, they said, they would “go slow” on development. This could have torpedoed the council’s ability to demonstrate that it had enough housing sites available to meet its delivery targets for the next five years, and thus opened the way for developers to win permission at appeal. The council acceded to the demands, prompting Ben Bolgar, senior design director at the foundation, to say that local residents had been “betrayed”. 

South Hams councillor Julian Brazil, now chair of the local planning committee, says the developers effectively held the authority to ransom. “They had us over a barrel. Our experience was that the design code was great, it really reflected the beauty of the county. But all it took [to get it changed] was the developer to say they’re not going to build them. My fear is we’ll get another clone town.”

But Ian Sosnowski, team manager for the joint urban fringe delivery unit set up by the district and Plymouth City Council, says the original Georgian-style code genuinely did have “too much prescription”. It prescribed specific wooden windows and particular cast-iron railings, and made most residents park their cars some distance from their homes. Sales, initially, were sluggish, he says. He adds: “The code gave a great legibility to the place, but the individual houses were not necessarily what everyone is after. No-one wants to build 5,000 homes that people don’t want.”

James Scott, group director of planning at developer Urban & Civic, which is acting as master developer on a number of urban extensions using design codes, says that maintaining quality without damaging viability is a delicate task. “We’ve now got experience of what housebuilders are able to comply with. We’ve a good sense of where the balance is.” Part of this, he says, is around not straining housebuilders’ supply chains by being too specific about demanding individual products.

As a master developer, Urban & Civic also has a huge advantage over a council in enforcing the code through its ownership of the land. It contractually obliges housebuilders to comply, withholding the land until compliance is confirmed. David Birkbeck, chief executive of social enterprise Design for Homes, says: “Codes can work well if they’re enforced by a landowner, but local authorities often don’t have the leverage to enforce them.”

Another factor that can undermine a design code is lack of support from the highways authority, which can refuse to adopt the streets. Jane Dann, director at design and planning practice Tibbalds, says the planting of street trees is a classic example. “High aspirations for design are often watered down as the highways authority is not signed up to the vision,” she says.

To overcome all this, Dann says codes need agreement between developer, planning authority, residents and highways authority in order to be effective. “The design code is only as effective as the consensus you’ve built around it,” she says.

Building that consensus remains the biggest challenge, particularly where local communities may be suspicious of the process. HTA’s Derbyshire says that, in a new planning system in which the traditional right to object to an application is curtailed, he is worried the process will be even more fraught. “There will be accusations that codes are not legitimate or accountable,” he says. “It’s a real worry.” 

Freelance planning consultant Tony Burton says the use of codes is an opportunity to improve housing design quality, but that questions remain over their place in the wider reforms. “The really important thing that has to be understood is that design codes don’t make unacceptable development acceptable,” he says. “They’re not a solution to a democratic deficit in planning.”

What does the white paper propose?

It says design codes should become planning tools by which community aspirations are turned into binding technical documents to ensure the delivery of quality places.

Design codes are proposed to police the granting of detailed consent in new growth areas – areas that local authorities would zone for development under the system proposed by the white paper, thereby automatically conferring outline planning permission. The white paper says the government will “make clear that decisions on design should be made in line with these documents”.

However, codes must be prepared with community involvement, “considering empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area”, the document says. Moreover, codes should “only be given weight in the planning process” if they can demonstrate this input.

Local site- or area-specific codes can be developed by local authorities, developers or community groups. Where they haven’t been created, decisions will be made against a National Model Design Code, scheduled to be published later this autumn, setting out parameters for development such as the arrangement of streets, hierarchy of public spaces, and parking arrangements. 


Where have design codes been used?

Poundbury, Dorset

The most famous UK example of a modern design coded development is Poundbury, a 6,000-home village on the outskirts of Dorchester built in period-style on land owned by Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall. It is seen as an exemplar of traditional high-density street patterns.

Newhall, Essex

Newhall, is a 3,000-home urban extension to the Essex new-town of Harlow, built according to design codes set out by Roger Evans Associates. The code has not limited architectural style (while a code may limit building height, for example, it does not always prescribe look), with many homes featuring contemporary design.

Sherford, Devon

Sherford, a 5,000-home new settlement outside Plymouth, is being built out in Georgian style according to a strict code drawn up by educational charity the Princes’ Foundation, with 600 homes built so far. Developers have persuaded the council to make the code less prescriptive for later phases.

Dos and don’ts for successful design codes


• Make the code concise, limited to precise, measurable and enforceable rules

• Use an intensive community process such as charette or enquiry by design to inform its content, and build consensus around this 

• Where possible get the site landowner to buy in to (or draw up) the code, so it can be enforced by contract with developers as well as through the planning system

• Use the code to set broad parameters for the place

• Consider what is the right level of prescription regarding materials and design detailing, considering deliverability



• Make the code too long – effective codes can be just a few sides of A4

• Make it a list of broad design aspirations – it must be measurable and specific 

• Specify materials or design detailing without considering deliverability

• Try to code areas that are too large – up 1,000 homes is commonly thought to be appropriate

• Treat community consultation as a tick-box exercise 


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