6.1 Design codes
There are clear benefits and limitations arising from the 'design methods' that are most commonly used for housing-led projects and in creating communities. It is of course widely acknowledged that having too much design guidance in place can restrict the ability for new and vibrant places to be delivered. However, ill-crafted or no design guidance can lead to poorly designed places.
6.1 Design codes
From the extensive evidence of exemplar projects, one of the 'best ways' for achieving quality design in more major schemes has been to use design codes. In terms of timing, the generality is to require developers to agree a design code following outline permission and before submitting reserved matters approval application(s). On this basis, design codes are most successful if they are evidence-based (as for any other planning policy or guidance), localised, and drafted by urban designers or architects (depending on their content), using clear language. Planning authority area-wide codes asking for new development to simply 'match/respect the local vernacular' are not as effective, although can be appropriate where there are smaller sites likely to be brought forward by SMEs – they can then help speed development through the planning process. As a matter of general principle, it is inappropriate to include examples of 'good' and 'bad' urban design layouts; instead, codes that consider modern designs - and understand the elements of a detailed design that can realistically be influenced by policy in a meaningful way - are more likely to be implementable.
An example of an effective design code's content would be along the following lines:
"The streetscape has a … quality and therefore we seek a development that responds with … (e.g. strong vertical components), with … being the priority, or alternatively, an innovative external design."
Effective design codes are also clear about where a specific material (such as a type of cladding) is not acceptable and why, and should examine evidence of how a material will weather, before it is promoted. Codes should in addition be able to anticipate modern methods of construction, acknowledging that some applicants will submit an application after they have already ordered a modular building and it is in production.
Masterplanning is another significant tool but one that can be fraught with issues relating to how such plans are used at outline planning permission stage, and subsequently in relation to the submission of reserved matters and their approval. In short, there are only inadequate available legal mechanisms to provide the practical measures that are needed to help ensure new housing-led developments meet the needs and expectations of communities. The issue in this context is the identification of methods to secure design quality in major housing-led schemes that are granted outline planning permission, with a community (and all-to-often, planning authority) expectation that the scheme shown on the illustrative masterplan will at least be secured in some way, shape or form. Most authorities do try and condition masterplan parameters when granting planning permission, but subsequently, the terms of the planning permission often actually deliver something quite different (this being less, in design quality terms).
The exception to this observation is generally only where the landowner has a vested interest: there is then a greater commitment to the development of a 'legacy' scheme. It is more usually the case however that in land sales, assumptions are made about the quantum of development to be accommodated on-site. Often that amount is on the limit, or even exceeds what can reasonably be the site's capacity. While the latest PPG on viability(May 2019) makes it clearer than ever that relevant planning policies have to be taken fully into account in site value, it remains the position that in relation to pre-dating transactions, it can be extremely difficult to achieve better design outcomes because of a reluctance by the developer and landowner to reduce the pre-agreed amount of proposed development.
To date, policy responses to masterplan issues relating to the scale of development - and its implementation - have included considering the imposition of ever-more constraining planning conditions. But there is not much of an incentive to follow this course further, given the current focus on the deliverability of planning permissions. Any alternative in the shape of new planning legislation is not realistic in the Institute's view – and also potentially unnecessary – because a prescriptive but inherently flexible/ responsive solution to more enduring masterplans can be found in better-utilising the current application determination process and conditions, and the existing legislation, national policy and practice guidance for s106 obligations.
In conclusion, masterplanning should be a design-led, collaborative process, contributed to by government, local planning authorities and communities. It should not be a stage in development projects that is imposed by developers in line with their own development agreements with landowners; masterplans need debate and co-production to be effective and implementable.
 RTPI (2019) Delivering Large Scale Housing, Learning from research in the South West of England. Available from: https://www.rtpi.org.uk/knowledge/practice/delivering-large-scale-housing/
 MHCLG (2019). Viability. Sets out key principles in understanding viability in plan making and decision taking. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/viability