Feature: The National Model Design Code

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By Roger File, COO of Blenheim Strategic Partners

Last summer the Government introduced a National Model Design Code (NMDC). Inspired by the work of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, its purpose was to address concerns over a proliferation of so-called ‘identikit’ housing developments and to raise design standards through the universal use of locally-led design codes for new developments: the NMDC providing a toolkit to enable local authorities and developers to create design codes specific to their area.

The permanence of a design code has two distinct advantages. The first is to ensure that the essence of the design is retained. All too often new communities are designed to a high standard which prioritises the local vernacular, only for covenants to expire and for residents to instigate changes which would cause the architect to recoil – from unsuitable doors and windows to artificial turf, inappropriate extensions, and plastic ‘stone’ cladding. The design codes for communities by Blenheim Estate Homes include guidance and stipulations which prevent this, ensuring that design standards are maintained in line with the original vision.

Design codes give both local authorities and developers a framework by which they can create healthy, attractive, sustainable and distinctive places, with a quality and consistency of design. This benefits communication with neighbouring communities, bringing conversations about design to the start of the planning process rather than the end, and therefore reducing the likelihood of a planning application being refused.

Inevitably some have questioned how a universal requirement put in place through national planning policy can have a genuinely local impact. It is important to bear in mind that the NMDC is not a design code itself, but a toolkit to enable the efficient production of design codes on a local level. Furthermore its requirement that design codes should create ‘high-quality places’ is a very general one which can be applied as appropriate to the vicinity. In fact the NMDC recommends that users undertake early analysis to inform exactly what ‘beauty’ means in that specific location.

In January 2021, the Government set out to test the application of the National Model Design Code (NMDC), a document which provides guidance on the production of local design codes and provides advice to local planning authorities on the process for producing codes. Sixteen local authorities took part in the trial between April and September 2021 and the feedback released on 20 June 2022.

The local authorities’ responses provide some interesting insight into how design codes are likely to be taken up, both by local authorities and by developers. As Blenheim Estate Homes has found previously, the pilots responded that site-specific design coding is potentially effective in optimising the responsiveness of development to local conditions and character, and that area-based coding at the neighbourhood scale can create a uniform character that can benefit from a shared set of design parameters.

I agree with the observation in the Executive Summary of the National Model Design Code (NMDC) Pilot Programme Phase 1: Monitoring & evaluation, that ‘local character is a fundamental concern for local communities and needs to be captured in coding in order for councillors to embrace this more systemised, rather than negotiated, approach to decision-making’. But I would question whether design codes covering an entire local authority area are as beneficial as the community-specific design codes which Blenheim Estate Homes has produced for many years. Creating a design code requires significant resources and the influence is inevitably watered down when applied to a larger, more disparate areas. There are also concerns, as expressed by the pilots, about how they would fit into the already complex strategic planning system.

Blenheim Strategic Partners is keen to work with landowners who care about what happens to their land and communities. We firmly believe that each development site needs a unique positioning to both allow it to blend into the existing fabric of the community and from a developer’s perspective, to separate it out as different: somewhere that optimises value, for the local community, the landowner and the developer.