Emily Hillman, Associate Urban Designer at Pegasus Group, explores whether the latest – in a long line of – design guides is a beauty or a beast.

Will Local Design Codes Cut Through National Confusion?

Until CABE was dissolved in 2011, its design guidance formed a central reference point for architects and urban designers up and down the country. Yet since its merger into the Design Council, no consolidated replacement has clearly emerged, despite the Government almost continually producing resources. It seems the sheer number of new releases has left the industry confused as to how it all fits together.

Pegasus Group has been involved in the redevelopment of Heyford Park for over 15 years, providing a multidisciplinary service at all stages of the planning process, including the design coding process

Where do local design codes fit in?

At first glance, local design codes (now required through NPPF) appear sensible. But how does this latest addition to a rapidly-increasing back catalogue fit into the bigger picture? And how are LPAs getting on in producing them?

For those not au fait with the reams of national design guidance, here are the highlights: The broad brush National Design Guide (2019) was followed by Living with Beauty (2020), Building for a Healthy Life (2020), Building with Nature (2021) and Streets for a Healthy Life (2022). The Government also published the National Model Design Code (2021), intended to guide LPAs in producing their own codes. Though, curiously, it doesn’t mention BHL or SHL.

At best, these documents overlap in scope. At worst, they repeat, compete and confuse. And practitioners on both sides of the table are left deciphering what weight it all has. So, while some LPAs have prepared their own code – starting with the 25 Pathfinder teams – others stipulate compliance with the NMDC or are silent on the matter.

With so many resources competing for attention, the industry is at risk of information overload and confusion. Frankly, it’s the opposite of what the resource-stretched and overburdened planning system needs.

Challenges facing the delivery of local design codes

Anything that provides certainty and clarity about what form development should take is a positive. But as the Governmental department that’s been the hardest hit by austerity measures, LPAs largely don’t have the resources to create their own code. Instead, most LPAs use the NMDC as a checklist, which was never the document’s intention.

More than that, there is a reluctance to deviate from national standards. LPAs know too well that when viability margins are fine, affordable housing is the first to go. LAs with a chronic need for affordable housing may, therefore, be less inclined to raise the design bar beyond nationally-accepted standards.

Can design codes help improve decision making?

We all know how emotive design can become, and it is anything but objective. So it stands to reason that a robust local design code that offers clarity from the outset – and that decision makers support and stick to – will speed up decision making and keep developer costs under control. Plus, design codes should help councils with a lack of in-house design expertise and help committee members understand and get on board with a design vision.

But there are risks, too

A design code could easily become over prescriptive going far beyond its remit, delivering pastiche instead of innovation. And it’s not just local codes that become over prescriptive. NPPF now requires every new street to be tree lined, yet this may not always be the best design response. And if it displaces 150 potential new homes, there will be bigger implications elsewhere. Who decides what takes priority?

Delivering true quality in design requires joined-up thinking across departments and clear communication with the respective highways, landscape and urban design consultants.

The findings from the Pathfinder Programme revealed more codes focused on town-centre locations than the originally-intended focus of new housing developments. Perhaps this is unsurprising as urban extensions inherently have less existing built form and character to draw upon than already-established, built-up areas, making producing a design code more difficult. But these difficulties mean that these are the areas that most require a code.

Key to all this is having sufficient resources. Pathfinders said they would have benefitted from dedicated resources and needed significantly more support and expert guidance on how to produce codes.

Pegasus Group prepared the Heyford Park Design Code. The Framework Plan provides a set of key regulating design principles and fixes, with which the details of design proposals must accord.

Will local design codes deliver distinct places?

How different one local design code ends up being from another remains to be seen, particularly if most LPAs revert to the NMDC. But at Pegasus, we are convinced that there are some aspects of placemaking and design that cannot – and should not – be coded at a local level.

Attempting to code every design decision would be as impossible as it would be undesirable. Market conditions change, and developers need the flexibility to be able to respond. Codes that dictate mix and unit size risk producing unmarketable developments that can’t be sold or simply don’t meet local need. The better way to achieve distinct places is to allow the market to dictate these elements of design.

Change in Governmental department budgets. Source: PESA 2014, Table 1.11. Accessed via Centre for Cities.

Will local design codes deliver better places?

For us, it’s simple. Quality design happens when you focus on good placemaking and offer clear guidance that cuts through confusion.

Local design codes could help achieve this – if they are properly funded and resist overprescription. But the Government’s propensity to change direction, depending on the political landscape and its preoccupation with pushing out yet another piece of design guidance, isn’t going to help us reach net-zero targets and isn’t going to create better places.

At a time when the Government is failing to give the industry the clear guidance it needs, we want to be transparent with our clients. Our Future Places document is not a design code but a way of thinking about placemaking that offers a checklist of principles to consider. It’s our manifesto of what ingredients we think all future places should entail.

In it, we encourage the developer to consider legibility, connectivity, biodiversity and people. Whether or not these things are required in policy – and recent political U-turns in biodiversity net gain and low-traffic neighbourhoods remind us how unreliable national policy can be – these elements will always give place longevity and a successful future.

View the original article on FC&A.