Do you agree with Government proposals for improving the production and use of design guides and codes?

Over the next few weeks, we are going to start sharing our draft responses to some of the Planning White Paper consultation questions. We want to do this so that you can see what other civic societies are saying to us, and give you a chance to influence our final submission as it evolves.

The first question and draft answer (available below) we are sharing is in relation to the question 17:

Tell us what you think to this response via: info@civicvoice.org.uk

17. Do you agree with our proposals for improving the production and use of design guides and codes?

[Yes / No / Not sure. Please provide supporting statement.]

The emphasis on design codes and good design is clearly welcomed by Civic Voice members. Based on 151 responses to a Civic Voice survey (undertaken in Sept 2020), 79.6% respondents supported the idea for design guides and codes to have a more central role in the system. We also highlight the National Housing Audit research (January 2020), that The most effective design governance tools are design codes and design review but they are used far less than other more generic approaches.

However, the clear concerns from our members are focused on (1) how the codes are created and (2) how they work in practice to ensure that the quality of development is improved.

We have 3 substantial comments to make:

PRACTICAL ARRANGEMENTS

We do not think it is realistic to expect a local authority to be able to code all land within a local authority boundary. The resources, time and cost needed to undertake such an exercise would be so large, it would never be a strategic priority for a council.

However, we see the potential for local authorities to produce design codes for specific sites/areas e.g. growth areas or protected areas. We struggle to see how codes will work in renewal areas, which would appear to cover much of our existing built up areas.

There should be a sensible transition period in which communities can concentrate on getting guides/codes in place (plus funding and up-skilling), during which the current discretionary approach should remain.

At what point should a community group start to campaign for their local authority to produce a local design code? Whilst we have lots of interest in this proposal, there will potentially be a period of two planning systems while we transition from the current system to the proposed one in the White Paper. If a community were to try to implement a code, based on the forthcoming National Model Design Code, how much weight would it have? Would it quickly become out of date? Can you produce design codes before the local authority has allocated its growth, renewal and protected areas through the new style local plan?

With the emphasis on local authorities producing local plans within a shorter timeframe than ever before, we think it is unrealistic to also expect them to prioritise design codes until local plans are in place.  

We welcome the expectation that local design guides and codes will be prepared with community involvement but still consider formal consultation should be required before local design codes are adopted. We welcome the proposal to measure public support for codes but are unsure at this stage how ‘empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic’ could be gathered.  

We think that any community group that is named in the Statement of Community Involvement should be allowed to prepare local design codes, with access to funding and expert support from the proposed national body, not just neighbourhood planning groups. 

If the default is the National Model Design Code, is this really localising decision making? How much weight will the National Model Design Code have when its published? What is the incentive for a local authority to decide to take forward a local design code when they are under resourced and being pressured on local plan issues, when the default position is the national code? Why should they do it? The sceptic in us fears that under these circumstances planning departments will think, let’s just use the National Model Design Code and not worry about the public engagement and producing our own. We say this as we know that numerous local authorities have not wanted to encourage neighbourhood planning for similar reasons. What carrot and stick approach will Government use if certain local authorities choose not to take forward design codes?

WILL THE ACTUAL CODES GIVE COMMUNITIES CONFIDENCE?

We welcome several comments within the consultation, particularly paragraph 3.8, with specific reference to:

“It will be essential that they (design codes) are prepared with effective inputs from the local community considering empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area”

We acknowledge the fact that developers can bring forward design codes but welcome the statement that it must be with effective inputs from the local community:

‘To underpin the importance of this we intend to make clear that design codes should only be given weight in the planning process if they can demonstrate that its input has been secured from the community’

The two key phrases here are defining “effective” community engagement and the “weight” given to local design codes when that has been achieved. We recommend that the National Model Design Code should define these terms and set standards for the level of meaningful community engagement that is to be expected.

We would expect that as a basic, local councils and developers are expected to follow the current design guidance that says: “Community panels or forums can be set up by local planning authorities or third sector organisations, such as civic societies, to represent the views of local communities by scrutinising plans, policies or applications” (paragraph 22).

At present, it is unclear as to what status the local design codes will have. Will they be equivalent to the existing ‘supplementary planning guidance’ or will they have the same statutory status as a local plan? This needs to be clarified by Government. Local design codes must have strong statutory status if they are to have the confidence of the public.

‘We will also make clear that decisions on design should be made in line with these documents’

It would be pointless for a local authority to produce a design code if they then chose to ignore it because of pressure from a developer. Therefore, if a developer brings forward a different design code that does not accord with the local authority’s, it should be rejected. However, the developer would be free to pursue their proposal through a discretionary approach and subject to local scrutiny, justifying their reasons for the departure.

HOW AND WHO WILL PRODUCE THEM – WHAT IS THE ROLE OF DIFFERENT PLAYERS?

We welcome the commitment that “It will be essential that they are prepared with effective inputs from the local community”, but the challenge will be to ensure that “effective input” is followed through. It is critical that local communities can positively engage in the preparation of local design codes to make sure developments truly reflect local character and environmental sensitivities.

We support the idea that local design guides/codes must be produced with community involvement to deliver provably popular housing. Civic Societies will have an absolutely essential role to play here.

We know that many local authorities have different success rates when it comes to engaging with communities. A local planning team does not always have the necessary local knowledge about an area and that is why it is critical that local communities are engaged in the process. Sufficient resources and training must be available to all local authorities and the wider community, who are being asked to prepare them.

If the point of design codes being introduced is to help communities support development, those same communities must be involved at local plan process. The success of design codes will be judged by the involvement of communities.

We believe that Statements of Community Involvement could be the bedrock of community involvement but, unfortunately, far too many have become too long, out of date and out of touch documents. We recommend that the Government implement a ‘National Statement of Community Involvement’, that showcases ‘best in class’ engagement at the different levels of consultation.

We recommend that the Civic Societies registered on the central database with Civic Voice are classed as ‘Consultees’ on all design codes being created in their area of geographic benefit.

Whilst we applaud the Government’s ambition around digital engagement – which we also want to see – this should be in addition to other methods of engagement as a range of approaches are required to engage the widest cross-section of the local community. We could not support this if it led to the loss of other methods of engagement.

We recommend that exhibitions / workshops / open meetings and discussion groups and independent but informed facilitation continues. It is important that various platforms are utilised to debate and explore ideas and, in our experience, no one size fits all when engaging communities, and ‘best in class’ engagement needs to recognise this.

There should be formal consultation with the wider community before local design codes are adopted.

END

Over the next few weeks, we are going to start sharing our draft responses to some of the Planning White Paper consultation questions. We want to do this so that you can see what other civic societies are saying to us, and give you a chance to influence our final submission as it evolves.

Tell us what you think to this response via: info@civicvoice.org.uk

Do you agree with Government proposals for improving the production and use of design guides and codes?

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