‘Beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder’. But in future, beauty will be judged not just by the beholder, or indeed the householder – but by the whole community! Over the weekend, the Government issued a whole suite of documents explaining their draft proposals for shaping (and indeed controlling) design. With a strong urban focus, they comprise:
The theme of the various documents described in the press release are broadly that:
The Government has indicated that greater concentration will now be placed on quality, design and the environment in planning than ever before, with the local community being fully involved in how they want new developments to look and feel. The proposed changes to the NPPF will set an expectation that good quality design will be approved while poor quality will be rejected and includes a commitment to ensure that all streets are lined with trees. The word “beauty” will be specifically included in planning rules for the first time since the system was created in 1947.
The long-awaited National Design Code Manual (originally expected last Autumn) and the response to the ‘Building Better Building Beautiful’ Commission’s report ‘Living with Beauty’ (published exactly a year ago), is a helpful aid for those developers seeking guidance on how to address design considerations within their schemes. Design Codes are intended to apply at three broad levels; at District level, Community level or indeed at Site level. In each case they are expected to be subject to full public engagement. The drive towards improving design must surely be welcomed.
But do they help or hinder the development process?
On the plus side, they provide simple parameters for considering design. They provide a useful template for those struggling to address complex design issues and theoretically, at a tactical level they present the developer with a clearer route to navigating their schemes through the sometimes complicated and subjective engagement process. The BBBBC report (Policy Proposition 9) recommended a ‘Fast Track for Beauty’, and indeed in response to this proposal, the Government now says that ‘To implement a ‘fast track for beauty’ in the first instance, we are consulting on changes to the NPPF to ensure that proposals which meet local design guidance and standards have a positive advantage and greater certainty about their prospects of swift approval’. This may fall somewhat short of earlier promises, since the passage to approval is heavily conditional on jumping through the hoops of the Local Design Guidance and standards – which presumably means the Design Code – but it is helpful nonetheless is highlighting speed and efficiency.
On the minus side, there is still no clarity (nor could there be) on what constitutes ‘beauty’. As always ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. But the implication from the guidance document is that greater formality, standardisation and consistency with local character and surroundings are the order of the day. Quite how, ‘beauty’ will square with greater uniformity in approach and design is unclear. Sometimes beauty is achieved through greater flair and variety. The examples in the Draft Design Guide are strongly urban in focus, implying that design issues in the rural areas are perhaps less important – whereas in practice the issues are often just as complex. Furthermore, there is a strong likelihood that planning applications will need to undergo further engagement to satisfy local design criteria – which will take time – even if a better result is ultimately achieved.
Perhaps what is most confusing, is that the laudible emphasis on better design seems to be so clearly at odds with the Government’s consistent drive for extending ‘permitted development’ rights (including the recently completed permitted development of changes of use from the all-encompassing Class E to residential development) where design considerations are not debated.
Similarly, whilst many Design Codes will be undertaken at District Wide level, the necessity for public engagement looks likely to jeopardise the desire for quicker Local Plan delivery (espoused in the Planning White Paper). If they are also sought at community level (linked to Neighbourhood Plans) and potentially at site specific level too this could add considerably to the preparation times for development sites and hence slow down housing delivery.