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18 OCTOBER 2019

The National Design Guide

On the 1st October 2019 the government issued a new Planning Practice Guidance entitled National Design Guide (NDG).

 

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is supported by a suite of Planning Practice Guidance that add further context. The NDG is to be read in conjunction with Planning Practice Guidance on Design: Process and Tools, which was updated on the same date. As such, the NDG provides a new advisory standard which would form a material consideration at planning applications and appeals.

 

The NDG supports paragraph 130 of the NPPF which states that permission should be refused for development of poor design or which fails to take the opportunities available for improving character, quality and function of an area. It aims to illustrate how well-designed places can be achieved in practice, using exemplar, aspirational development case studies as a benchmark.

The ten characteristics of a well-designed place –

The National Design Guide

Document Content

The NDG outlines and illustrates the Government’s priorities for well-designed places in the form of ten characteristics. The ten characteristics are based upon Chapter 12: Achieving well-design places of the NPPF and are as follows: context, identity, built form, movement, nature, public spaces, uses, homes and buildings, resources and lifespan.

 

The ten characteristics are themed under three overarching objectives for sustainable design - to foster community, respond appropriately to character and to address climate change (the three C’s!). For each of the ten characteristics there is an explanation, bullet points of the issues to consider, along with good practice examples and a Looking forward section detailing points to consider in an attempt to future proof development. The document makes useful reference to other best practice documents and helpfully cross references with relevant policies within the NPPF.

 

The document does not contain specific detailed measurable criteria for good design, as it is considered that such criteria are most appropriately set at local level.

 

The document opens with a quote from Vitruvius on the fundamental principle of good design being that which is: fit for purpose: durable; and brings delight. That bringing delight should feature so highly is surely an admirable aim, although difficult to pin down in an objective way.

It should be noted that the aspirational project examples used feature mainly bespoke architect-led residential design schemes, rather than large-scale strategic sites/garden villages/developer-led masterplans. This does present raise questions in terms of assessing a design response using a volume delivery model.

 

As well as the usual best-practice urban design principles that we are familiar with, there is a focus on certain issues pertinent to today. For instance:

 

  • Social inclusivity features strongly – perhaps a reaction to recent high-profile cases of ‘poor-doors’ and play areas that are not open to affordable rent tenants.
  • The provision of electric vehicle charging needs to be considered.
  • Restating the importance of green infrastructure to deliver quality of place, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, resilience and health and wellbeing – messages that come through clearly in the Environment Bill.
  • The context section again emphasises identity and local character, but also acknowledges that not all new development should be informed by local style if there is not a strong or positive pre-existing design character – a useful clarification.

 

A National Design Code

The third chapter of the NDG is yet to be completed but will comprise a National Model Design Code which will set out detailed standards for key elements of successful design, ultimately with each local authority having its own Local Design Code. This chapter is subject to the findings of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and is due to be consulted upon in early 2020. This will ensure ‘Specific, detailed and measurable criteria for good design’ is appropriately set out. Requiring everywhere in the country to produce a local design code is admirable, but it is unclear as to how the cost of producing these will be met by Local Authorities under huge resource pressures. An inherent risk lies here where the Local Design Codes are not well enough prepared due to these challenges.

 

Conclusions

The guide is essentially a distillation of best practice and contains nothing that is ground-breaking or new. However, the document has a place, and the balance it strikes in terms of setting high level principles whilst leaving space for designers to do their jobs is well judged. It gives further details as to the reasons by which local authorities can refuse applications on the grounds of poor design, and its status as PPG level policy adds weight.

 

It will likely be most useful to planning committee members and Councillors who often lack design skills, but clearly there is a still a great deal of interpretation in the NDG and applying it formulaically to any given scheme. The NDG has been criticized for being ‘a Ladybird book of Urban Design’ but this could also help empower communities and those without design expertise to get more involved.

 

It will be interesting to see whether this document begins to be used as a material consideration in planning and whether it binds the inspectorate. Does the guidance provide sufficient information to facilitate a robust assessment of design? As informative and well-illustrated as the document is, it is still a task that would the benefit from the input of skilled design professionals.

 

It is perhaps disappointing to many given the Government’s declaration of a climate emergency just how little emphasis is placed on environmental considerations within the design process, and whilst it references climate change it does not contain strong policy to support the transformation to a low carbon economy – at least in terms of design.

 

Another elephant in the room is the notion of affordability, the housing crisis and how we deliver viable developments within good design parameters.

 

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