89. Authority-wide design codes, four key questions (and answers)

In a major extension of its drive to improve the design standards of new housing developments across England, the Government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill includes a requirement that local planning authorities adopt authority-wide design codes as an integral part of their development plan.  Assuming this provision makes it into the Act, it raises several immediate questions for local planning authorities up and down the country.  Drawing from the National Model Design Code Pilot Programme Phase One, Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E for short) it is possible to suggest some answers.

What is an authority-wide design code?

Up until now the term design code has been associated with the sorts of codes produced for specific sites, typically in relation to a particular planning application and often produced by developers or their consultants rather than by a local authority team or their consultants.  Reflecting earlier similar definitions, in 2019 design codes were defined in the National Design Guide as “A set of illustrated design requirements that provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area”.  It notes “The graphic and written components of the code should build upon a design vision, such as a masterplan or other design and development framework for a site or area”.  The definition envisaged codes relating to development sites or closely defined areas (e.g., a neighbourhood with several developable sites) and as a delivery tool for a spatial design vision that had already been prepared.

This contrasts with the simpler and broader description contained in the National Model Design Code (NMDC) of 2021 which characterises design codes as “a set of simple, concise, illustrated design requirements that are visual and numerical wherever possible to provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area” (para.5).  For the first time, the ‘area’ in question enlarged somewhat to include everything from a neighbourhood up to a whole county.  This fundamentally changes the nature of design codes because first, they are being prepared for very large territories with very varied characteristics that might potentially encompass everything from a high-density town centre to low density suburbs and even rural areas.  And second, they will need to be prepared in the absence of a spatial design vision, becoming, in effect, vision-defining rather than vision-delivery tools.

Codes as vision delivery vs vision defining tools
Codes as vision delivery vs vision defining tools

To put this another way, rather than the content of masterplans for sites subsequently informing and being delivered through codes, those masterplans will themselves be shaped by codes.  This is something the M&E explored as a good proportion of the codes were being created in the absence of a strong pre-existing vision for the areas being coded, whether that was an individual site or a whole local authority.  This led to codes that were less detailed and more strategic in scope, setting out only the critical design parameters related to factors such as development form, mix, density, greenness, and connection, rather than every architectural or public realm aspiration and detail, factors that are much better decided later at the site-specific scale.

The new authority-wide codes might take a leaf out of this book rather than attempting to be all-encompassing from the start.  Indeed, the Bill explicitly notes that authority-wide coding does not need to cover every aspect of design or the design implications of every possible type of development in every location.

How are authority-wide codes different from previous design policies, standards, and guides?

The proposed legislation offers little detail regarding the nature of the new codes, and only specifies that “for every part of their area, the development plan includes requirements with respect to design that relate to development” (Schedule 7, 15F).  On the face of it, every authority already complies with this requirement given that all have at least some basic policy or guidance in place on design (even if ineffective).  However, upping the ante, authorities are expected to specify in their Local plan timetable how they will comply with 15F while in a related clause (15HB) the Secretary of State reserves the right to intervene where a “local authority fails to ensure design code”.  So, authorities will need to carefully consider what they have and whether it cuts the mustard.  They should also bear in mind that the clear expectation is for authorities to put in place a more effective regime of urban design governance, so the chances are, it won’t!

The NMDC distinguishes between design guides (more generic and flexible) and design codes (more specific and prescriptive).  We also need to distinguish between harmful codes (in place-making terms) and those that will deliver higher order design outcomes.  Also, between effective and ineffective guidance.  On this front authority-wide coding (of sorts) is nothing new, but the types of standards and guidance we have had thus far have not always produced great results.  On the one hand we have the ubiquitous highways standards that are effective at delivering on their objectives (highways dominated developments) but poor at delivering place quality.  On the other we have the equally ubiquitous generic design policies (in local plans) and almost as widespread residential design guides that are respectively so open to interpretation and so detailed that, despite their focus on place quality, they are just as easily ignored as used.  The impacts of these sub-standard codes are plain to see in the poor and mediocre housing schemes that dominate across the country.

So how will the new design codes be different from these?  The aspiration should be to combine the prescriptive (non-negotiable) qualities of the highways standards with the statutory position in the planning process of design policy and the place quality focus of local design guides.  And to strike this illusive balance they should focus foremost and with clarity and precision on those ‘must have’ qualities of the desired new places, which should be expressed in an unequivocal manner as statements of expectation rather than negotiation.  When this was the focus, the M&E revealed that codes can be prepared surprisingly rapidly, albeit that most were for sites rather than for whole authorities.

Authority-wide codes will need to strike an illusive balance
Authority-wide codes will need to strike an illusive balance

Where should hard pressed authorities start to produce an authority-wide design code?

Local planning authorities up and down the country will be grappling with this question, but as the M&E revealed, as all are in different places as regards their existing urban design governance tools and capabilities, each will be on a different journey towards an authority-wide design code.  The best advice for authorities is start from what they already have in place and build from there.  This is because most authorities will already have a sense of what works and what does not in their localities, as well as which aspects of design are being successfully implemented locally and which are not and what from their current suite of policies and guidance is proving effective at delivering this and what is not.  At the same time, if the ambition is to raise standards nationally, then this is only a stepping off point and not the end of the journey.  We need to start by challenging what has gone before.

To so this it will be necessary to build a better understanding by:

  1. Going out, looking, experiencing and critiquing recent developments (a huge amount can be learnt quickly and effectively through post-completion analysis, but too often it does not happen);
  2. Meaningfully engaging local citizens in this process, both of looking but also asking about design aspirations in a manner that moves beyond simplistic likes and dislikes to aspirations for good places that will allow (in each locality) fulfilling, enriching and sustainable lives to be led; and
  3. Engaging with other critical parties early in these conversations, most notably highways authorities (here persistence may be required), local developers and perhaps other neighbouring authorities

While every authority will be unique, many will share qualities and challenges in common (as well as a lack of resources) and it may be that by working together they can get a long way forward in preparing an authority-wide design code that can be shared (in whole or part) or simply in terms of the thinking process that feeds into its production.  The M&E revealed a lot of excellent work in the first and second of these items, although the third was underexploited within the confines of the six-month testing period.

The NMDC method also raises another starting point, the identification of area-types (areas of unified character) and their analysis as a basis for then developing more locally specific coding.  While this is undoubtedly a valuable exercise and capable of producing more locally responsive design codes – notably in relation to factors such as landscape and architectural character – the M&E suggested that it is also complex and time consuming.  An alternative may be to begin by using the approaches already outlined to identify the critical and generic ‘what goes wrong’ factors and then gradually differentiating and nuancing this over time for different areas within authorities.  If authority-wide codes are here to stay, the first iteration will not be the last, and so it may be more important to get the fundamentals in place rapidly, adding specificities later.  This was an approach adopted by most authorities monitored during the first phase pilots, although the second round of piloting is looking at these issues with the luxury of more time and with greater financial assistance from DLUHC.

Area-types Nuneaton and Bedworth
Area-types Nuneaton and Bedworth

How should authority-wide design codes be used?

If written well – by which I mean clear, focussed, graphic and measurable – then authority-wide design codes would be the first port of call for: designers and developers when they shape their schemes; for development managers, councillors, and inspectors when they evaluate them; and for communities when they seek to understand propositions in their localities.  To do this they will need to be intuitive to use, attractive and engaging and no longer than they absolutely need to be.

Over time we will be able to gauge how effective these new forms of code are.  As already argued, they will need to be quite different from the sorts of authority-wide standards, policy, and guidance that we have seen before, and authorities should not underestimate that.  This is not (or should not be) an exercise in re-packaging what already exists!

The M&E suggested that in recognising and helping to tackle authority-wide design problems, authority-wide codes can help to coordinate area-based and site-specific codes and will be of value in the absence of capacity to take a site-specific approach.  To my mind, however, the real prize will remain site-specific design codes.  These have proved particularly effective at delivering design quality in the past, largely because their preparation requires a careful site-specific design process.

Typically, this will involve an urban designer or architect directly engaging with the place, rather than a plansmith simply applying generic housing products and generic codes to a site for as little at £10-£35 per plot to prepare, for example, a bid layout (often prepared without visiting the site or conducting any analysis).  The Explanatory Notes (para.46) to the new Bill suggest that authority-wide codes can act “as a framework, for which subsequent detailed design codes can come forward, prepared for specific areas or sites”.  This should be made explicit by authorities when drafting their new authority-wide design codes by including a simple requirement that a site-specific design code be prepared for every major housing application, building upon, and delivering the provisions in the authority-wide code.

Authority-wide codes as a framework for site-specific codes
Authority-wide codes as a framework for site-specific codes

To conclude

The requirement to make authority-wide codes mandatory is a bold and welcome move but, as with so much in our planning system, how that is interpreted locally by different authorities is likely to vary widely.  That is local democracy and is a good thing, but it will also be reflective of local resources, confidence and the skills available to do this work.

As the M&E report noted, “It is difficult to underestimate the vehemence with which the pilot teams drove home the message, that to move beyond the usual process of waiting until developers are in place then being led by them, requires that authorities have access to design skills and capacity”.  Clearly we will not get full coverage of design codes quickly and it may take many years, but, if written well and then kept under review and refined as evidence of implementation begins to mount, then we could be moving into a new and much more effective era in the long but rocky history of urban design governance in England.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL