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Vicky Payne: Design codes - an update

Vicky Payne is Strategy Research and Engagement Lead at the Quality of Life Foundation and Chair of the RTPI’s Urban Design Network. In her previous role she helped create the 2021 National Model Design Code with national government.

Having had something of a heyday following the publication of the National Model Design Code in 2021, design coding has occupied a smaller chunk of the built environment conversation of late. But the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and the National Planning Policy Framework consultation contain new language around coding that could have significant implications.

What is a design code?

A design code is a set of clear, measurable rules that control the design of a place. They differ from design guides in that they enable binary decision making; yes the code has been followed, or no it has not. A design guide might say “heights of new buildings should be in keeping with the surrounding area”. A design code might say “heights of new buildings should be between 3-5 storeys”. Codes can be made flexible by having wider acceptable ranges or fewer rules.

Design codes in national policy

The Government published the National Model Design Code in 2021, and made accompanying changes to the National Planning Policy Framework. This sought to give design coding a greater role in the planning system. Its development was influenced by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC 2019-2020) the National Design Guide (2019) and the Planning White Paper (2020) which explored the idea of a zonal system. Design coding had been used on individual sites up to that point, but the 2021 changes formally required local planning authorities to produce codes and introduced the possibility of setting design rules for a wider area. 

A pilot programme in 2021 gave 15 teams £50,000 each to test the coding process. Then the “Pathfinders” programme in March 2022 awarded £3 million to 25 teams to demonstrate best practice. The NPPF wording emphasising the importance of design seemed to be filtering through into decision making

Design codes in the LURB - the “whole area”

Section 15F of the LURB seems to require codes to be produced for the whole local authority:

15F Design code for whole area 

(1) A local planning authority must ensure that, for every part of their area, the development plan includes requirements with respect to design that relate to development, or development of a particular description, which the authority consider should be met for planning permission for the development to be granted. 

(2) Subsection (1) does not require the local planning authority to ensure— 

  1. that there are requirements for every description of development for every part of their area, or 
  2. that there are requirements in relation to every aspect of design. 

The LURB appears to be requiring universal application of an “area type” approach - which is currently an optional aspect of the NMDC. The approach involves local authorities setting high level coding rules for a large area; dividing it into types and setting high level rules around density, height, block typology etc. In this way a framework can be created for more detailed coding at a site specific level, for example, in support of an application. 

Extract from the National Model Design Code showing an example of “area types”

This approach has potential to speed up decision making and provide greater certainty in the planning process. However support may be needed; according to monitoring and evaluation of the Design Code Pilot Programme carried out by UCL, the area type approach was not well understood by the pilots. It is also important to note that while it can speed up decision making at the application stage, it creates a heavier upfront requirement for skills and resources at the policy development stage. Plan-tech approaches like Urban Morphometrics may be able to provide a head start on categorising types.

Design Codes in the NPPF Consultation - character, beauty and complexity

The proposed NPPF text from the December 2022 consultation keeps the current flexibility around coverage and content in paragraphs 128 (130) and 129 (131). However other proposed changes seem to rely on the widespread presence of design codes. 

Proposed changes to the fundamental Paragraph 11 (The presumption in favour of sustainable development) include the alternation below, which allows local authorities to avoid meeting their objectively assessed housing need if it would mean building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area:

b) strategic policies should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other uses, as well as any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas, unless: 

ii. any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.; such adverse impacts may include situations where meeting need in full would mean building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area8;

Footnote 8 then clarifies the role that design codes would play in this determination:

8 Taking into account any design guides or codes which form part of the development plan for the area, or which are adopted as supplementary planning guidance.

If design codes could be used to determine whether or not objectively assessed housing need should be met in full, one would assume that the coverage of codes will need to be comprehensive. 

There are a couple of complicating factors around design coding in the proposed NPPF changes. The word “beauty” is added throughout the document alongside “design”. There is potential for a level of uncertainty about what might constitute a beautiful (and therefore policy compliant) code. The future of supplementary planning documents and the complexity of new style plan making timetables also creates a degree of uncertainty about how adopted design codes will be given weight as development plan documents. 

Looking ahead

It seems that design codes will continue to play a significant role in national and local policy going forward. There are evidently some complexities around their implementation, in terms of coverage, content and weight. The RTPI’s Urban Design Network will continue to follow the progress of coding as further policy developments emerge. 


RTPI masterclasses

Each year the RTPI runs the online CPD masterclass – Planning for Good Design where learners have the opportunity to learn how to write design guidance and design codes.

This structured learning will contribute 7 hours CPD credit towards your continuous professional development for the year.

Please search for the next upcoming masterclass date in the CPD Masterclass Calendar.

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