11 January 2023

Design codes: a thing of beauty, or else… – Victoria Du Croz writes for EG

Partner and Head of Planning, Victoria Du Croz, has written for EG on Michael Gove’s recent statement to the Centre for Policy Studies that the government will do everything in its power to prevent the development of homes that are “not aesthetically of high quality”.

This includes, Du Croz says, a threat to call in planning applications that are “not beautiful”.

The creation of new design codes is one tool that the government plans to use to prevent “ugliness” being imposed on communities. But there are fundamental issues with design codes, not least that design by its very nature is subjective.

Local authority-wide v granular

The National Planning Policy Framework has outlined that the new design codes should be set at the local authority level. However, borough-wide design codes fail to recognise the different street level vernacular. Walk down three to four roads in most local areas and you will see a mix of architectural styles, from Georgian townhouses to listed 1960s council housing and everything in between.

Borough-wide design codes will either lack enough specific detail, rendering them meaningless, or be so generic that they will contribute to the creation of identikit housing – a criticism already volleyed at new build schemes. If local authorities try to make them more granular to better reflect specific areas, it will be an incredible burden and at considerable cost, at a time when local authority budgets are seeing below inflationary increases over the next two years, before falling further to just 1% real term increases from 2025.

Many London local authorities already consult design review panels – impartial experts including architects and urban designers alongside engineers, sustainability specialists and built heritage experts – who provide advice in relation to the design of new schemes and public realm.

As well as having panels that can be called on to provide guidance, there are standards and policies to ensure new homes are built to a suitable standard in terms of space, light and quality. At the application stage, design and access statements, submitted alongside applications, go into detail on the design response to the local area and reasons for the proposed material palette.

Given that all these existing checks and balances are in place and are factored into a local authority’s decision, why should central government step in to alter that decision? Especially when call-ins can slow down delivery, running counter to the need for new homes.

Community Perspective

Part of the impetus for implementing design codes is to bring communities onboard with new development. And while you can go through planning portals and see people commenting on the design of schemes, most nimbyism stems from concerns about additional strain on public services and infrastructure.

The frequent refrain at public consultations is about the difficulty in getting a doctor’s appointment, concern about securing a place at the local school or the state of the local roads – all things that the community infrastructure levy is supposed to be allocated towards.

The problem with CIL in its current guise is that it is not ringfenced to deliver these improvements in the same part of a town or city as the development is happening in, meaning that local residents cannot see new infrastructure being delivered alongside the new development to alleviate pressure on services in their local area. All they see is new homes and the challenges that come with this.

Reform CIL, force local authorities to spend the money and spend it in the local area where housing is being delivered and you could remove some of these objections. Ultimately, local communities do not rail against new developments just because of how they look, it runs much deeper than that.

Poundbury (pictured, above) – often held up as the exemplar on the use of design codes (the Duchy of Cornwall created a Poundbury Design and Community Code) – not only divides opinion, it also has wider cost implications. Replicating Poundbury fails to recognise the importance of having a range of housing products on the market to cater to different needs.

This does not mean bringing forward sub-standard accommodation, but it does mean recognising that sourcing specific materials and bringing forward a range of housing designs can affect both the price for the buyer and the viability of a scheme – meaning less affordable housing is delivered.

It would also be a mistake to think that Poundbury has “worked” because of the design of the homes, when in fact there is a lot to be learnt from the integration of shops, business and even factories alongside the new homes. It is this interaction between uses that makes for successful development, especially the consideration and incorporation of employment land.

Getting the priorities right

New home delivery continues to be a priority across the country, though the specific mechanism for deciding how many homes we deliver and where is currently a topic of debate. What everyone should be able to agree on is that the priority is delivering a range of high-quality homes.

This can be done while still respecting listed buildings, conservation areas and even local design palettes. What the UK planning system does not need is another layer of complexity adding cost and time to new home applications.

The government can surely use its power and resources to better effect than overturning decisions made by local planning authority committees – especially when beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This article was originally published in EG (10 January 2023) and is also available to read here behind their paywall.

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