If the recently proposed changes to the planning system come into force, then local design codes will take on considerable importance in the planning process.
The White Paper proposes, under Pillar Two, “Planning of Beautiful and Sustainable Places”, that design guidance and codes will be prepared locally, with community involvement, and that such codes will become “more binding” on decisions about development.
The strong implication is that these local design codes will have to be prepared in line with the National Design Guide, the yet to be published National Model Design Code and a new Manual for Streets. This means that, whilst the intention is for local design codes to reflect the diverse character of our country and what is “provably popular locally”, there is likely to be a degree of homogeneity of outcome.
It is proposed that local design codes may be brought forward by LPAs, by neighbourhood planning groups or by applicants proposing significant new areas of development. In every case, however, “effective inputs from the local community” will be essential. Such is the emphasis on effective local input that it is proposed that they will only be given weight in the planning process where it can be demonstrated that this input has been secured. If it has been secured, decisions “should be made in line with these documents”, otherwise, the decision will be based on the National Design Guide, the National Model Design Code and the Manual for Streets.
What does this mean for Local Planning Authorities?
Under the new system, if local communities are to have any real opportunity to influence the appearance and layout of development, the LPA will need to ensure that there is an effective and timely local programme of design code preparation. It will need not only to produce good quality and comprehensive codes, but the Council will need to be able to prove, as things stand, not only that the public had a chance to comment, but that they actually did so in an effective way. This will put a significant burden on the resources of LPAs which will need to guide the process technically and in terms of securing input. All of this can take time. Delay, however, could be disastrous because the fall-back will be a form of development over which neither the LPA not the local community will have much influence.
The White Paper promises improvements to come for resourcing of LPAs and opportunities to “refocus professional skills”. There may be a central body to assist, monitor and challenge the process, but behind the well-meaning words is the sense that, once again, LPAs will be asked to do more with less. In practice, as discussed below, LPAs are likely to look to developers to drive and fund this process.
What does this mean for developers?
Design codes which are too stringent and individualised are likely to increase costs for developers, driving up house prices or driving down profit margins. They may also restrict the ability of developers to differentiate their product and so reduce the diversity of choice for purchasers. Sales could ultimately suffer. Developers will therefore want to play a part in devising codes for areas in which they propose to develop. It is likely that those promoting significant developments will be keen to get involved early in the process and take the initiative in promoting an appropriate design code and ensuring that there is adequate consultation in relation to it. I anticipate that LPAs will welcome this since it will reduce the burden on them and that new agreements akin to PPAs may be entered into between LPAs and developers concerning the preparation of design codes.
The White Paper suggests that for significant sites identified in the Local Plan a master-plan and site specific code will have this agreed between the LPA and the developer prior to detailed proposals coming forward and that for longer term allocations these will be prepared by LPAs. This will place a significant burden on LPAs because master planning is a detailed and technical process. For many allocations and especially those to be built out in the shorter term this responsibility will surely fall to developers or promoters.
The benefits for developers of taking control of the design code process are manifest and significant, not least because there is a proposal on the White Paper for a “fast track for beauty”, which will allow “beautiful” development to be expedited through the system. The headline title gives rise to the obvious question of who is the judge of beauty and if entry to the fast track truly depended on an assessment of beauty it would be an area which was ripe for challenge. In reality, however, it will, if adopted, be a fast track for development which ticks certain boxes and one of these boxes seems very likely to be that it conforms with a locally approved design code.
Smaller developers are likely to find themselves excluded from influencing design codes by lack of resources of time and money and so to find themselves constrained by codes which may increase their costs significantly, although there is a crumb of comfort offered to them in the PD rights proposed for “pattern book development” referred to below.
What does this mean for communities?
If communities want to retain any sense of control over the way that their neighbourhood develops they will need to address themselves to points of principle and design in respect of development at a very early stage. It will, frankly, be difficult to get engagement without an immediate threat to the surroundings of an individual’s home and it is asking a lot of communities to devise design codes of general application to their area.
It will be important, therefore, for Parish Councils, community groups and LPAs to drive and assist this process. Failure to do so will lead to significant dissatisfaction and a sense of disenfranchisement when development on a specific site does come forward.
Another area which will concern communities is a proposal for pattern book development to benefit from permitted development rights. This is not a well formulated proposal and it is not really clear what is intended except that it will enable “popular and replicable forms of development to be approved quickly and easily” by giving them permitted development rights subject to prior approval of some details. This is stated to be for the benefit of smaller developers and to support “gentle intensification” in towns and cities. What is not clear at the moment is how this will fit in with a desire to ensure that new development is beautiful and reflects local characteristics. It does not seem likely that extensive PD rights for housebuilding will be popular with residents whose outlook and quality of life can be significantly and permanently affected, nor is it clear that the intensification which is intended will be perceived as gentle by those who are subjected to it.
The consultation ends on 29th October 2020 and the changes proposed will have far reaching consequences for everyone in England. All stakeholders in the development process should respond in detail to the consultation and set out carefully in a supporting statement why they take the view that they do. This is your chance to try to ensure that the system will work for you.
This article addresses proposals 11 to 14 but at Birketts we can assist you with a supporting statement in respect of these or any other proposals. To be effective your statement will need to be succinct, clear, well-reasoned and persuasive. It will need to address concerns of broad significance.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at August 2020.