Design Matters: Looking at what the National Model Design Code means for developers
Following consultation held earlier this year on a draft national design code and proposed amendments to the NPPF, it is clear that the government are now placing a greater emphasis on new development securing quality design and placemaking. This has been followed by last week’s announcement of a pilot scheme under which 14 local planning authorities will receive £50,000 each to prepare their own local design codes based upon the design principles set out within the National Model Design Code (NMDC).
Since its first iteration in 2012, the notion of achieving good design has long been inscribed within the National Planning Policy Framework as a pillar to sustainable development. Indeed, most involved in planning and development would accept that the success of a place is most often grounded upon its quality of design.
Despite this, recommendations provided by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission published back in January 2020 highlight that the industry as a whole has by in large been failing in this regard. Further analytical work such as the Place Alliance Housing Audit (2020) reinforces this case, emphasisng a rather bleak statistic that 73% of the 142 developments assessed nationwide achieved ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design. In fact, 20% of these schemes should have been refused permission outright.
Poignantly, when looking from a regional perspective at schemes in the North West, Yorkshire and Humber and North East, the audit provides a condescending pat on the back to the development industry in assessing the quality of design as ‘solidly mediocre’.
It is this perception that more can be done to achieve better designed places, which has set the backdrop for the Government publishing another iteration of the National Planning Policy Framework for consultation earlier this year. While the number of text amendments were relatively minor, the central theme of promoting design quality and more specifically ‘beautiful’ homes is a subtle shift with potentially significant implications when it comes to determining planning applications. Most notably the amendment to paragraph 133 which states that ‘Development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on design’. This also accounts for any local design codes (see Appeal Decision below).
These draft amendments have been supported by the publication of the National Model Design Code, an over-arching framework and practical guidance for supporting LPAs in the production of local design codes and policies for promoting successful design. This includes information on the process of establishing design parameters around heights, densities, architectural detailing, hierarchy of public and private spaces and so on, all of which contribute to the principle of achieving good design.
Bringing Clarity to a Subjective Matter?
Despite advocating for beautiful design there is a clear gap in the NPPF by not providing a clear definition of what beautiful design actually is. Indeed, the word ‘beautiful’ is only referred to twice in the National Model Design Code. One only needs to attend any given planning committee to realise how subjective the issue of design is, and that is even before you begin to add in the concept of ‘beauty’. Not only can individual opinions differ but furthermore it is open to change over time and with moving trends.
Attempting to compartmentalise such an issue is no easy task and the inclusion of the checklist and ten characteristics under Figure 2 of the National Model Design Code is welcomed in providing structure to assessing what constitutes a well-designed place. This could be translated into Design and Access Statements and used by planning officers to appraise schemes. That said, the lack of a definition on what constitutes ‘well-designed’ let alone ‘beautiful’ development will no doubt still allow the debate to continue to rumble on at Committees and may provide an easy option for schemes that Members politically want to refuse.
Implications for Developers
From our experience on recent projects, we are already seeing a greater challenge from LPAs regarding the use of what is typically considered as ‘pattern book development’ by national housebuilders. Notwithstanding the requirement for achieving good design, development economics cannot be ignored. Major housebuilders are already taking steps in terms of supply chains in anticipation of the 2025 start date for the Future Homes Standard and zero carbon housing agenda. Requiring them to also take a wholly bespoke approach to the design of house types on each and every site will bring with it further demands, delays and risk to delivery at a time when housing provision is needed more than ever.
That said, we are noticing a growing need for housebuilders to be more agile when it comes to finessing and selecting house types. Sometimes even minor alterations to the positioning and size of windows as a means of promoting internal daylight levels and surveillance can go a long way. Achieving national space standards, even in authorities with no policy basis for doing so, is however increasingly becoming a mandatory requirement and hot topic at committees. The ability to deliver to national space standards is therefore a risk item that needs to be strongly considered at the outset.
Inevitably there is a balance to be struck when it comes to investment value in place-making, however research such as that within the Place Alliance Housing Audit (2020) has found that ‘in every region better designed schemes achieve higher sales values amounting to a 75% uplift nationally, and poorly designed schemes lower values’. This is something that should encourage developers when it comes to decisions over scheme design and composition.
If the recent appeal decision at Nunthorpe Gardens, Middlesborough (Ref: APP/W0734/W/20/3262389) is anything to go by, it appears the Government’s drive for good design is already filtering through to the decision making process, with the 97 dwelling scheme being dismissed on design grounds. The key issue centred on the proposed density of 33.6 dwellings per hectare (dph) and spacing of dwellings which was in direct conflict with the standards set out within the Council’s Nunthorpe Grange Design Code (NGDC). The local design code identified a much lower density of 18dph. In particular, there was a parcel of the site which was described as being ‘much more intensively developed’ when set against the NGDC and as such failed to positively account for the character and identity of the area. The use of rear parking courts, narrow ginnels with limited opportunities for surveillance, and a concentrated number of plot frontages dominated by car parking were other design aspects criticised by the Inspector as being contrary to the NGDC. Taken as a whole the Inspector was conclusive in attributing ‘substantial weight’ to failing to achieve a well-designed place adding that the ‘NGDC is a matter I afford significant weight given the recent nature of the document and given the promotion of design codes within the National Design Guide’.
Following the consultation on the draft NPPF, National Model Design Code and a raft of ministerial statements earlier this year, it is clear to see that the importance of design quality is now at the forefront of the minds of Inspectors. The anticipated adoption of both documents later this year will only add further policy ammunition to LPAs and strengthening their case at appeal. Do not be surprised if an increasing number of similar decisions were to follow.
If you have projects where you are unsure on the best planning approach to address design considerations or would like to find out more on the proposed amendments, please get in touch with the NJL Consulting team to see how we can assist.