National Planning Policy Framework and National Model Design Code: Consultation Proposals – It’s a Beautiful World or it will be soon…

John Sneddon
John Sneddon
Managing Director, Tetlow King Planning

Last month, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) for England published a consultation, it can be found here MHCLG Press Release 30 January 2021 and Consultation Documents (opens new window)

In this blog for the Housing LIN I want to talk about these changes from the specialist housing and care sector perspective. In a week when the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Housing for Older People will be publishing its latest Inquiry report, the truth is that there is not a great deal in the consultations that is directly relevant to this sector as opposed to all development. In some regards the sector could be said to be ahead of this curve with many current proposals seeking to implement parts of the various APPG Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) reports that began in 2009 which all have had a strong emphasis, amongst other matters, on good and improved design. The sector itself has a great incentive to produce well-designed, suitable and beautiful developments to attract older people who are looking to downsize from what might have been the family homes for many decades.

The consultation consists of two combined and closely related things. The first is various changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which sets out the sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how these should be applied, and the second is seeking views on the draft National Model Design Code, with separate guidance notes, which provides detailed guidance on the production of design codes, guides and policies produced by Local Planning Authorities working with their communities and the industry to promote “successful design”. Oddly enough “successful design” is never defined.

In addition to the introduction of a National Design Code and the following on of Local Design Guides, the NPPF has other changes of which these seem like the more important:

  • Guidance on Article 4 directions LPA’s restricting permitted development and the protection of these from local actions to restrict them;
  • No more ‘innovative’ homes which was a method used to overcome the development of isolated homes in the countryside although the test that such homes are is truly outstanding in design and architecture is retained;
  • A “well designed” test is proposed suggesting “Development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on design” replacing the current test that “Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area”;
  • Protection of statues.

Perhaps the thing that has caught the eye of the public and press, as said in accompanying press release, is that all new developments must meet local standards of beauty, quality and design under new rules. Note the word “local”. The press release explains that the NPPF text has been revised to reflect suggestions made by the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission following their report ‘Living with Beauty’ Report January 2020  and the White Paper Planning for the Future August 2020. One of the headline topics of the White Paper is to improve outcomes on design and sustainability but the overall main topic, it can be argued, was as per the Prime Minister’s foreword “…we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places…” and I could have added that we don’t have the right sort of homes given the deficit in specialist accommodation for the aged. Also very relevant is the updated National Design Guide January 2021 originally from 2019.

Concentrating on this current consultation and the parts on design its useful to understand what design in planning is. As the Guidance Notes for Design Codes part of the consultation explains this is not just about appearance but as it says It is based on the key characteristics of context, movement, nature, built form, identity, public space, and use. One of the sections on homes and buildings explains:

“Well-designed homes and buildings are functional, accessible and sustainable. They provide attractive environments that support the health and wellbeing of their users. They meet a diverse range of needs, are adequate in size, ft for purpose and adaptable. They relate positively to the spaces around them and allow for easy operation and servicing”.

The White Paper explains that:

“Our reformed system places a higher regard on quality, design and local vernacular than ever before, and draws inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books that built Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”.

The parts most relevant to the specialist accommodation sector should be obvious – accessible with Part M4(2) as a minimum, meet a diverse range of needs, adaptable and health and wellbeing, as championed by HAPPI. 

There are of course current national and local policies on good design with national advice saying poor design should be refused and planning applications are of course refused for poor design under national and local plan policies (including local design guides). But the proposals can be said to be changing the nuance of this but most importantly and relevantly is consideration and setting standards at a local level of what is good design and what is not. The positive side of this from the development industry point of view is that it might well increase the degree of certainty that is given to any application that complies with local design codes and guides. All most developers in any sector want is as high a degree of certainty as possible in any submission that can of course require the commitment of significant resources.

This concentration on design comes for a number of directions but perhaps most relevantly is that we are not building enough houses and the White Paper is suggesting radical reforms to increase the level of delivery of new homes and looking to streamline the planning system. If you are going to build more homes that we are building now it would help in the court of public opinion that every effort is made to raise the quality of developments.

Those reforms include a revised local plan processes where there will be permission given in principle on some sites and this should give greater certainty to developers that if they follow this process and the rules, including design codes, they have a higher degree of certainty.  In the White Paper it says that now nearly all decisions to grant consent are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done. The White Paper is seeking to resolve that and move into what some might call a zonal form of planning.

That increase in development inevitably more local conflicts on the amount of development and where it is located. People who object to applications do so for many reasons and design is one of those reasons. Most commonly in my experience is the principle of any development of any kind in larger schemes in particular referring to the need for it. That is closely related to the impact on services but also common are highway safety, ecology, and visual impact. Many of these things are of course related to the wider definition of good design and the White Paper did include measures on developments providing infrastructure/services and there are ongoing changes on biodiversity and sustainability.

When and if these proposals are approved, they will form a basis for the production of design codes and guides by Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). In preparing local plans LPAs should develop an overarching design vision and objectives that can inform design codes, guides and other tools that inform the design of the built and natural environment in their area. These can be at district level, areas of a district or individual developments and neighbourhood plan areas. In all cases the public would be involved as would the development industry. It is therefore important to engage now with your local LPA on how it will be planning for an ageing population in their area and whether they will adopt a design code that recognises the HAPPI principles.

One concern on this is the resources required by LPAs and access to the expertise that they will have to implement these.  However, perhaps the biggest danger that the specialist sector faces is not from these changes but from itself not engaging enough with the local process of adopting design guides, codes and local plans related to these not taking account of the sector’s particular needs and desires as many local plans still do not now. The current consultation would therefore benefit from people in the industry of specialist accommodation making comments that point to the needs of the sector and what it wants to see in design guides and codes taking account of the individual qualities and designs they seek to place in their developments. Make your points known and have your say by 27th March 2021.

Tetlow King Planning are sponsors of the Housing LIN’s Planning Portal. They are also able to provide advice with regard to specific representations and submit a representation on your behalf. They can be contacted on in Bristol or in West Malling.

 And if you found this blog of interest, check out our dedicated online Planning Portal, and/or talk to us find out how we have been working with the sector to support planning a better housing choices for people in later life.


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