One of the most potentially challenging elements of the recent planning White Paper is the concept of beauty and how this is delivered in a meaningful and lasting way.
As shown by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) review and 2019 National Design Guide, few would disagree with the idea itself – and the ideal of bringing more beauty into new developments wherever we can. But this is a subjective topic – if beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, can it be prescribed successfully through codes and guidance to increase certainty and ultimately delivery?
Well-designed schemes not only help to create lasting communities that work for everyone, but are an opportunity for our industry to showcase good placemaking and attractive buildings with the potential to increase value and long-term interest.
The new National Model Design Code, due in the autumn, comes at a time where there has been a step-change in the way we work, rest and play. There is the potential for this new Code to reflect upon the changes and ensure that the new places and buildings delivered across the country are of a suitable quality that can respond flexibly to the changing needs of the community, and give as much importance to public and private amenity spaces as the buildings themselves.
How national guidance is translated and applied to the local level and its application on a site-specific basis will be the key test of success, and the separate, consultation later in the year is a welcome opportunity for planners and architects to expand upon and evolve these points.
Bringing forward the BBBBC’s suggestion of each authority having a chief officer for design and placemaking is welcome and has the potential to help guide the translation of local issues to ensure they are deliverable.
As with the other proposed changes, ultimately this will only be successful through appropriately funded and resourced local authorities. The proposals for an independent design panel could help, providing comment and input where there is officer disagreement or skills gap. These panels must, however, themselves have skillsets relevant to the proposals being assessed to provide meaningful guidance and avoid becoming a burden on the process.
However beauty is defined and delivered, the references to effective stewardship should be developed further as a priority. Without it, the beauty created will fade over time.
How can the risk be addressed that over-use of design codes could stifle innovative architecture that could become future heritage assets or create pastiche developments in certain areas? Design codes also need to be reconciled with NetZero aspirations, to ensure that locally-loved designs are as efficient as modern methods of construction
While design codes are typically thought of for residential developments and that’s where most local interest comes (reflected in the tone of the White Paper), how will they work for other forms of development and regeneration – especially those which require more bespoke design approaches and professional expertise such as theatres, education and commercial buildings?
For the proposed approach to design to be successful, balancing the range of interests involved in bringing forward development is going to be essential.
Community input needs to reconcile the views of all members of society to ensure that design aspirations reflect diverse requirements and tastes. For example, younger members of society may be moving from an area not only because of cost, but because the sort of housing they want to live in is not available. Developers should also be part of future consultation to help address questions of commercial viability and ensuring that site potential is maximised.
In designated Growth areas, the White Paper identifies the need for a masterplan and site-specific design code to be agreed as a condition of the Permission in Principle that is granted through the plan. There are overarching advantages of taking a holistic view, especially for complex situations where there are a number of different ownerships. But there is the risk that in the lead-up to the local plan process the approach will be more onerous to individual site owners, especially those who are smaller or more cautious, who will likely need to take on more risk and speculative cost to be part of the decision-making process for any emerging masterplan being prepared by the local authority.
Finally – and linking back to the maxim of ‘build, build, build’ – MMC has the potential to respond positively to the use of design codes and approved pattern books, and therefore help the move towards quicker delivery of sustainably constructed homes.
The forthcoming consultation on design needs to be considering all of this and more in order to make sure that these important ideals can also be delivered.