Building Beautiful

Viewpoint - 21/07/2021

Championing Beauty - The New Vision

Graduate Planner, Lauren Stoves, outlines the latest planning guidance as the MHCLG take another step towards placing "beauty" at the front and centre of the planning system.

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Tuesday 20 July marked the latest step towards achieving Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick’s vision of reinstating “beauty” within planning policy for the first time since 1947.

We have previously discussed the implications of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG)’s proposed Planning White Paper and the Urban Design Groups New Design Guidance, but these latest announcements are a another firm step towards putting “beauty” front and centre of the planning system. 

Together with Nicholas Boys Smith, Chair of the newly established Design Advisory Body, the “Office for Place”, Joanna Averley, Chief Planner at MHCLG, Jenrick hosted the Building Beautiful event, coinciding with the publication of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and adopted National Model Design Code (NMDC). These documents provide the foundation for a shift towards delivering a built environment of higher quality, sustainability and beauty, positioning communities at the centre of decision-making to create places that endure.  

National Model Design Code

Firstly, the NMDC seeks to provide a reference point for developers, consultants, local authorities and communities, particularly in circumstances where other guidance, such as a local design code, is absent. It contains a detailed framework for the production of design codes, guides and policies to deliver the highest quality environments, which will be implemented to aid local authorities to produce unique versions of their own.

In May 2021, fourteen councils across England were granted £50,000 to pilot this process over six months including the likes of Southwark, Guildford, Newcastle and Mid-Devon, where we are currently undertaking projects with a range of clients. In order to support these communities to develop and implement these design codes within the system, the government has created an Office for Place within MHCLG, formed of industry leaders with expertise in design and place-making. Encouragingly, the Office has announced this week that they are now seeking ten additional authorities to trial the process and offer further insight into the practicalities of developing local codes. 

The NMDC also includes a toolkit for embedding the views of the local community within planning conversations from the outset, partnering with the local authority to develop a design vision unique to the needs of those who live within an area, with greater influence upon the schemes proposed by developers. Jenrick suggests methods such as the long overdue digitisation of public consultation methods will also be supported and accelerated, as a means to achieve greater participation in the planning process which, as it currently stands, fails to capture the interest of the public. 

Revised NPPF

This new-found emphasis on design is to be upheld by a revised NPPF, which will now require design policies to be effectively developed alongside local communities, grounded in their ambitions for each diverse areas of the country. Changes to the NPPF also make it clear that is local planning authorities should develop an overarching design vision and expectations that can inform design codes, guides and other tools that inform the design of the built and natural environment in their area, whether prepared by them or other parties. Where proposals fail to meet the criteria of local design codes, refusal will be endorsed.  Further design requirements include all new streets to be tree-lined, provision of “access to nature” within developments and, of course, creating places of “beauty”.   

Alterations to the Framework also extend to the use of Article 4 directions to remove national permitted development rights which, when relating to a change from non-residential to residential use, should be limited to situations where a direction is entirely necessary to avoid unacceptable, adverse impacts, or to protect the amenity of an area. We discussed this, along with other recent changes to planning legislation, in our previous post earlier this month. 

We will be looking at the changes to the NPPF in more detail over the coming weeks and months, exploring how a number of themes are being address as part of the national policy direction, including design changes; public infrastructure delivery; and the role of new homes in rural areas.

Of particular note is a change in emphasis relating to strategic policies and sites. Paragraph 22 now expects Local Plans, where larger scale developments such as new settlements or significant extensions to existing villages and towns form part of the strategy for the area, should have a 30 year vision to take into account the likely timescale for delivery. 

"Beautification"

In theory, this shift towards prioritising beauty within the planning process is impossible to challenge. Buildings of higher physical and aesthetic quality have greater longevity, and consequently greater adaptability over time, a more significant contribution to an area’s sense of place, and a positive impact upon the well-being of the communities that live amongst them. The concept of greener, more sustainable, people-focused developments that incorporate attractive public realm with areas to play, interact and relax has long been supported, and its value only reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

However, in practice, the recent documents will inevitably trigger conversations around whether ambitions for design will align with differing planning ambitions, such as the changes and challenges proposed within the Planning for the Future White Paper, and implications of the new Standard Methodology on local housing need (watch this space!). For example, although Jenrick recognises the significant demand for housing across England, the proposed concept of “gentle density” through lower level mansion blocks and terraces could implicate the viability of proposals and therefore hinder the delivery of residential developments. Subsequently, what may the impact be upon estate regeneration schemes, which tend to place preference on denser blocks of taller buildings?  A further question mark must also be placed upon how, in practice, it will be ensured that a singular design code for a specific area will not simply produce developments of uniformity, and therefore lacking in the diversity of character attractive places are often deemed to have?

We are passionate about delivering the highest quality of design within our schemes. We are currently working on a range of development types, from tall buildings to rural, low density residential schemes; all of them which seek to deliver attractive, viable and livable environments. We will continue to keenly observe and contribute to how different local authorities choose to implement the directives from MHCLG, and work with them along with our clients to deliver new and revitalised places that not only make the most effective use of the land available, but also strive to achieve exemplary design that reflects the needs of their communities.

Community Decisions

A central element of both the revised NPPF and NMDC is the attention given to early and proactive involvement of the community in deciding planning outcomes. This ambition is not new, and its repeated emphasis within planning documents at varying levels is indicative of the scale of the challenge to ensure it is embedded within planning practice. It is therefore likely, that these changes will take place on a generational scale, prompting queries of how feasible the swift production of local design codes for each authority is in reality, when many are faced with ongoing resourcing issues, and with the production of Local Plans already a long and arduous process.

Looking forward, the Phase 1 and, now Phase 2, pilots of local authorities developing local design codes will be insightful case studies for how the NMDC can be applied throughout the country, informing and potentially enabling the restoration of beauty at the heart of the planning system. 

Our Planning, Development and Regeneration team has a vast range of experience, specialising in Major Projects and Planning Applications, Housing, Retail and Employment Needs Evidence Bases, Urban Design, Town Centre Regeneration, Strategic Site Promotion and Development Viability, amongst others. 

With offices across England, including in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Bristol and Leeds – along with supplementary presences in a number of other locations, we are in the perfect position to help you navigate the planning system to achieve the best outcomes for your sites and developments.  

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