You might be aware that Government has been promising a wholesale reform of the planning system. On the 30th January (a Saturday) the Government gave us a sneak preview by launching its consultation on some immediate changes planned for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). A draft National Model Design Code (NMDC) and accompanying guidance note are being consulted upon simultaneously. The reason provided for making these changes now is that they are in response to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report Living with Beauty, published February 2020.
The consultation proposes changes to a number of the policies on sustainability, flood risk and biodiversity, Article 4 Directions, protection of the historic environments, and (subject of this blog) design quality.
A key change to proposed to NPPF is a requirement for all local authorities to prepare and implement design codes tailored to each place – this could be for entire areas or individual sites. The draft NMDC has been prepared to provide local authorities with a framework for preparing their design codes and includes a checklist of design principles for new developments.
The NPPF consultation also proposes that significant weight should be given to development that reflects guidance and policies and outstanding or innovative designs. Where there is no local design code then decision-making weight would be given to the NMDC.
There is a significant re-wording of NPPF which, if adopted, would lower the bar for refusing applications on design grounds. The current policy stating that permission should be refused for development of ‘poor design’ is to be strengthened to refuse development that is ‘not-well designed’. Both of these terms are highly subjective. After all, one person’s design masterpiece is another’s carbuncle. It is reasonable to expect there to be an increase in applications refused on design grounds – not to mention the potential for lengthening pre-application negotiations. Read here about appealing a planning refusal.
These changes raise the question of whether planning authorities have sufficient design capabilities to prepare as well as implement design codes? More than a decade of austerity has taken a heavy toll on local authority resources, particularly those that could be viewed as non-essential. When I cut my teeth at a rural district council (erhhmm) years ago there was a 3 strong conservation team which included an urban designer. I doubt many areas can boast such in-house expertise today and there is a danger that the ‘computer say’s no’ mentality of some councils planning departments could actually stifle design innovation.
Local expertise will certainly need to be bolstered to achieve the Government’s worthy ambition to improve the quality of development and places. Fortunately, Government does seem to have recognised this as they have promised to create an Office for Place within the next year to pilot the NMDC with 20 communities. The first 10 councils to sign up will receive a share of an initial £500,000. Will this be enough for cash strapped local authorities and will the initial funding also be rolled out alongside the policy if the pilots are successful?
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