One year after the publication of ‘Living with Beauty’, the recommendations put forward by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission are taking shape.  In this guest blog, my colleague Nicola Cotton considers the proposals to revise the National Planning Policy Framework.

The new vocabulary introduced by the report has gained real substance and anyone who thought beauty was an abstract ideal, rather than a principle of development, should think again. The government has embraced the Commission’s vision and intends to revise the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) with a renewed focus on good design, beautiful places and place-making. Consultation proposals for the draft NPPF, the National Model Design Code and Guidance Notes for Design Codes opened on 30 January and will run until 27 March 2021.

Toolkit + story

The Design Code and Guidance Note will form part of the government’s planning practice guidance and should be read alongside the National Design Guide. Whereas the Design Code documents provide an overarching framework consisting of a toolkit to show how the coding process will work, the Design Guide sets up a narrative to explain how this will translate into lived experience in the context of local communities. Put simply, the Codes are more technical (giving specific visual and numerical details), the Guide tells a story.

Two-tier approach

The idea is that the national Design Code and Design Guide will be used to inform local design codes and guides to be devised by local planning authorities (“LPAs”) in consultation with neighbourhood communities. Given current resourcing at local level, achieving the second design layer of code/guide policy poses something of a challenge. To assist local authorities in setting local standards for new development, over the course of 2021, the government will establish a central Office for Place. It is expected that where local design codes and guides exist, significant weight will be given in reaching planning decisions relating to development that reflects these. In the absence of local design guidance, LPAs will need to defer to the National Design Guide, National Design Code and a revised Manual for Streets.

10 key characteristics

Among this welter of proposed reform, developers will no doubt take a keen interest in the technical details of national/local codes. Those less technically minded may find the 10 key characteristics of a well-designed place set out in the National Design Guide to be an equally useful starting point. Informed by 3 overarching concerns – Character, Community and Climate – the key characteristics aim to ensure that future development takes account of: context (by responding to and enhancing the surroundings); identity (that is distinctive and brings delight); built form (that follows a coherent pattern); movement (it should be accessible, promote non-motorised travel, encourage social interaction); nature (it should integrate existing natural features and create new ones); public spaces (that focus on enjoyable places between buildings, mitigate climate change); uses (that incorporate local services and a mix of tenure); homes and buildings (should be functional, accessible and sustainable); resources (should be managed to minimise environmental impact); lifespan (new development should be built to last, ‘ensuring places and buildings age gracefully’).

No place for ugliness?

A swift glance through this list shows that the terms of reference for planning have changed. The ‘Living with Beauty’ report set out to ‘ask for beauty, refuse ugliness and promote stewardship’. It is clear that the government is set to embed those 3 goals into national policy. A few concluding thoughts, however, which I will discuss in my next blog: In the context of the built environment, what does ‘ugliness’ mean? Will a reformed planning system that champions beautiful places reject all forms of ‘ugliness’? If it does, might that lead to unintended consequences?