Planning for beauty – revisions to the NPPF, a new Model Design Code and an Office for Place

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They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Now, for the first time since the birth of the modern planning system in 1947, it’s also enshrined expressly in policy.

In a flurry of activity on 20 July 2021 the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced the government’s Building Beautiful Places plan, a suite of measures designed to “enshrine quality, beauty and sustainability in the heart of local decision making across the country”.

The headline measures include:

  • the publication of an updated National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”) “putting beauty at the heart of the planning system”;
  • the publication of the National Model Design Code (“NMDC”), billed as a “toolkit” to enable planning authorities and communities to formulate local design requirements; and
  • the establishment of a new Office for Place to “drive up design standards” and help planning authorities and communities to test and pilot the NMDC.

The aim is to “banish ugly developments”. Is that easier said than done?

Design – another golden thread

Last year’s “Planning for the Future” White Paper brought to the fore the concepts of design quality and beauty in plan making and decision taking.  At the start of 2021, the government opened up a consultation on draft revisions to the NPPF and input on a draft NMDC.  The fruits of that consultation – this week’s revised NPPF and NMDC – represent what the government calls its “commitment to making beauty and place making a strategic theme in national planning policy”.

How will this be achieved? The principles relating to design set out in the revised NPPF appear, at first glance, simple enough.

The first step is to put in place design guides and codes:

  • To provide maximum clarity about design expectations at an early stage, all planning authorities should prepare design guides and codes consistent with the principles of the National Design Guide and NMDC, and which reflect local character and design preferences.  The newly established Office for Place is intended to provide support to communities and planning authorities in rolling out the principles of the NMDC.
  • Those design guides and codes may be prepared at an area-wide, neighbourhood or site-specific scale.  Landowners and developers may wish to prepare application-specific codes. Whoever prepares them, the NPPF says, they should be based on effective community engagement and reflect local aspirations for development of an area, having regard to the guidance in the National Design Guide and NMDC. 
  • In the absence of locally produced guides and codes – which will undoubtedly take some time to prepare – the national documents should be used to guide decision making.

When it comes to decision making, good design should be rewarded and badly designed development refused.

  • Development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government design guidance.
  • Conversely, the NPPF says that significant weight should be given to development which does reflect local design policies and government design guidance, and/or outstanding or innovative designs which promote high levels of sustainability, or help raise the standard of design more generally in an area – so long as they fit in with the overall form and layout of their surroundings.

Easier said than done?

The focus on clarity at an early stage, community engagement and local buy-in is creditable.  Few would argue that consent should be granted for badly designed developments.

On a practical level, the front-loading of the design guide process means that landowners, developers and promoters will need to have their eye on the ball if they want to have a say in the design parameters for an area, making representations at the appropriate time, and ensuring that their input is heard in the preparation process.

A more significant challenge, however, will be to deal with the subjectivity in policy. How to harness and manage local engagement and agree, for planning purposes, what constitutes good design, local character, and local design preference. Given how subjective and contentious design routinely is, we can expect the early stages of the process to be very hard fought indeed.

The new Office for Place is sure to have its work cut out.

What next?

It will be interesting to see how the development of design guides and design codes beds in over time.  What is clear, though, is that design really has been thrust into the limelight. 

In a week where the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City has been removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a result of the impact of the design of new development on the “outstanding universal value” of the waterfront, the importance of good design – as subjective as that is – is evident. 

Looking forward, we can expect design to attract even greater scrutiny in plan making and decision taking terms.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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