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Public Engagement with Design Codes

By Niamh Burke, Associate, Carter Jonas (London)

An emerging theme in planning policy is that of ‘beauty’. While ostensibly raising the standards of design, the underlying aim of the beauty agenda is to increase the delivery of more homes. As the then Secretary of State indicated in a webinar on Building Beautiful Places in July last year, very few people actively support planning applications for new homes, but this could be addressed by, ‘putting beauty back at the heart of how we build’.

It follows therefore that if public support for the design of new communities is achieved at an early stage, planning consent is more likely to be forthcoming. This is what design codes are intended to achieve: as a template by which local residents, via their local planning authority (LPA) can create their own aesthetic wish-list, they allow communities to exercise more control over the built environment.

In July 2021 the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was amended to urge all councils to develop a local design code, and the National Model Design Code (NMDC) provides advice on both the process and the content, along with methods to capture and embody the views of the local community.

The first consideration is how design codes will fit into our current system. Public consultation is required on the formation of a Local Plan, the drafting of a Design Code, and at both the masterplanning and detailed planning stages of a development proposal. Never before has consultation been required to such an extent.

Furthermore, design codes can be applied at county, local authority, neighbourhood or site level. And the NMDC requires consultation at no fewer than three points: on the analysis, the vision and the formation of the code. This runs the risk of creating consultation fatigue and an imbalance in local engagement. It is widely understood that objections to planning applications are often brought about by a vocal minority of ‘NIMBYs’. A potential problem of increased consultation is that NIMBYs presented with more opportunities to object, increasingly outweigh the voices of those who do not.

Furthermore, research demonstrates that increased engagement is likely to favour a conservative approach to design: the Government’s own polling has demonstrated that support for traditional design is preferred over contemporary architecture: 85% of respondents surveyed said that new homes should either fit in with their more traditional surroundings or be identical to homes already there.

So will design codes result in a dumbing down in housing design? While consultation can open minds to new ideas, this takes considerable time and skill. A much-repeated comment from the pilot NMDCs was that local authorities lacked the resources to consult fully. This would suggest that without a significant investment in public consultation, the design of new homes will favour pastiche over progression.

While many questions remain about how consultation is conducted and with whom, the success of NMDCs also depends on how this additional requirement fits into the broader planning process. For design codes to have a role in the planning system, they must be fully integrated – rather than existing as a relic of the 2020 Planning White Paper – planning policy that never was.