Faced with the increasingly urgent need to deliver more housing whilst preserving environmental quality and retaining community support, in 2004 the then government launched an extensive pilot programme in England, aimed at assessing the potential of design coding to deliver better quality development, more rapidly. This national pilot programme involved the detailed monitoring and evaluation of nineteen development projects over a two-year period and reported in early 2006.
Whilst the programme itself was coordinated for the CLG by CABE, the monitoring and evaluation and subsequent preparation of practice guidance was undertaken by a team at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning led by myself in association with consultants Tibbalds Planning & Urban Design.
The research defined design codes to be site-specific tools, typically building upon the design vision contained in a masterplan, development framework or other site or area-based spatial vision. The codes themselves then focus on urban design principles aimed at delivering better quality places, for example the requirements for streets, blocks, massing and so forth, but may also cover landscape, architectural and building performance issues, such as those aiming to increase energy efficiency.
At the time the research revealed a range of potential headline benefits of the use of design codes, including:
- Better designed development, with less opposition locally, and a more level playing field for developers
- Enhanced economic value derived from the positive sense of place that better quality design can deliver
- Less uncertainty with the planning process and a resulting positive climate for business investment
- Streamlined regulatory processes, saving time and money for developers and local authorities alike
- A more coordinated development process, built on consensus instead of conflict.
The use of codes was subsequently recommended in national policy, initially in 2006 in Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing (para.18), and subsequently in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (para 59). Policy was accompanied in late 2006 by detailed guidance covering the purpose, preparation, use and utility of design coding (now scheduled by the Taylor Review for revision and incorporation into the new single online planning guidance resource).
Six years on
Six years later, a follow-up project has focussed on the diffusion of design codes as a tool in planning and development practice, and gauges:
- How widespread the use of design codes is today in England
- What benefits the use of codes have and whether these match those identified by the pilot programme
- The value of Government sponsored good practice guidance reflecting the lessons of the pilot programme
- Support for the continued use of design codes in the future
The project was limited by time and resources, so in order to get as accurate a picture as possible of the diffusion of design coding practice across England, a number of concurrent approaches were used to trace practice:
- A desktop review of LDF/local plan policy across 311 local planning authorities in England
- A questionnaire to the 311 local planning authorities in England and the 117 urban design consultancies registered with the Urban Design Group
- A desktop review of the websites of the urban design consultancies
- A further desktop search of planning authority planning application portals to trace design codes mentioned in either of the surveys but not previously found.
The research was published by the Urban Design Group.
Whilst the report discusses the research and findings in some depth, to cut to the chase, the headline findings against the research questions are offered below:
How widespread are the use of design codes in England today?
- In excess of a third of local planning authorities have had codes produced for them, either through requiring or commissioning them, or otherwise through developers voluntarily submitting them as part of a planning application.
- The use of design codes is advocated in policy in a quarter of local planning authorities, and this is rapidly increasing.
- Around the two thirds of urban design consultancies have experience of producing design codes.
- The overall diffusion of design coding (in policy and / or practice) is approaching one half of local authority areas.
- A significant element of diffusion is being driven by private developers, landowners or consultants submitting unsolicited design codes as part of planning applications.
- Regional variations in diffusion vary from 32% of local planning authorities in the South-east of England to 72% in the South-west.
What benefits do the use of design codes have and do these match those identified by the national design codes pilot programme?
- The key aspirations for coding are to secure higher (sustainable) design quality; to deliver more consistent outcomes across the multiple development phases of long-term projects; and to provide a more effective planning process, through expedited reserved matters processes, swifter permissions for those who comply, and by offering greater certainly for developers.
- The actual impact of design codes in practice confirms the aspirations.
- Design codes: improve design quality, tying down ‘must have’ design parameters; ensure consistency (and where appropriate differentiation) in the delivery of key site-wide design principles between development phases; offer far greater certainly about outcomes and certainly to developers about the process; and bring key stakeholders together early in the process leading to smoother working relationships and to a better understanding of expectations and constraints from the start.
- On the question of speed, codes do speed up the reserved matters applications associated with successive phases of large development projects, but this requires a considerable front-loading of design time early on.
What has been the value of Government sponsored good practice guidance reflecting the lessons of the pilot programme?
- Preparing Design Codes, A Practice Manual was most frequently cited as the key source of advice for preparing design codes.
- The preparation of design codes took off dramatically after the publication of research and guidance in 2006, and has continued to increase through to 2012.
- In excess of 120 design codes are estimated to have been prepared since 2006, compared to a smattering of codes before.
What support exists for the continued use of design codes in the future?
- The assessment amongst planning authorities was overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority of those who had previously used design codes declaring their intention to use them again as and when the right opportunities arose (namely sites large enough to justify their production).
- A large majority of planning authorities and urban design consultants who have not used codes intend to do so in future.
- Planning authorities particularly welcome the increased control design codes give them over the outputs of the volume housebuilding sector, although stressed the need for an in-built review process to maintain flexibility.
- The use of design codes is just one part of a much needed culture change in the design and delivery of new housing.
Ultimately, despite their perceived benefits, the effectiveness of codes will depend on whether those responsible for their production consider their preparation to be a worthwhile investment. In this regard, despite all their potentially positive benefits, practitioners also remained cognisant of the limitations of design codes; that this tool alone could not change established patterns of behaviour, and that the use of codes is just one part of a much needed culture change in the design and delivery of new housing. As one respondent put it:
“The point of private developers preparing design codes is that they are not trusted to do what they say they will. Planning authorities and other public agencies see design codes as a way of holding them to their word. To the same end the developer tries to write them in a way that appears that they are doing this without actually doing so … if that is not too cynical!”
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL