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Expert Insights

15 April 2021

Strategic Planning, Design & Beauty: Proposed Changes To The NPPF

The consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework and a new draft National Model Design Code has closed and we await the Government’s response. The proposals follow the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission “Living with Beauty” report.

Those promoting or bringing forward planning applications for strategic sites should consider the potential changes carefully, as they are already impacting authorities’ expectations and will become a material consideration if adopted.

Beauty and the beast:

Applicants will be required to grapple with the undefined and highly subjective concept of “beauty”, with the requirement to achieve “beautiful”, as well as well-designed, high quality, safe and sustainable places, buildings and homes and distinctive places. A stronger emphasis on strategic policies achieving design quality is proposed.

Increased use of design tools:

The National Design Guide (NDG) and National Model Design Code (NMDC) are expressly referenced and will need to become familiar to all. The changes proposed include the following.

  • All LPAs should prepare design guides or codes consistent with the principles in the NDG and NMDC and which reflect local character and design preferences. The level of detail and degree of prescription can be tailored to the circumstances and scale of change, however, and allow a suitable degree of variety where justified.
  • Design guides and codes should be area wide or site specific and, to carry weight, be produced as part of a plan or SPD, although it is acknowledged that applicants may prepare codes. Existing guidance that area-wide design assessments can help bring small and medium sized sites forward will remain. In many authority areas, the huge differences between places may limit the usefulness of area-wide guidance however.
  • Design guides and codes should be based on effective community engagement and reflect local aspirations, taking into account guidance in the NDG and NMDC. Neighbourhood planning groups are encouraged to engage to ensure the special qualities of their areas and how they should be reflected in development are identified.
  • The design of streets, parking areas, other transport elements and their associated standards should reflect the NDG and NMDC (and not withdrawn Design Bulletin 32)
  • In the absence of locally-produced guides or codes, the NDG and NMDC should guide decisions on applications – essentially becoming a material consideration.
  • Development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance (i.e. the NDG and NMDC), taking into account local design guidance and codes.
  • Significant weight should be given to both development which reflects local design guidance and government guidance on design and outstanding or innovative designs which promote high levels of sustainability or help raise the standard of design more generally in an area, so long as they fit in with the overall form and layout of their surroundings.

Trees, trees, trees: 

Planning policies and decisions should ensure that new streets are tree lined. There is a high hurdle to meet to avoid this requirement – there must be clear, justifiable and compelling reasons why it would be inappropriate.  Close working with local highway officers and tree officers is promoted to ensure compatibility with highway standards and user needs.  Opportunities must be taken to incorporate trees elsewhere in developments (community orchards are expressly referenced). The costs of tree provision and future management responsibilities will need to be considered on applications.

Sustainability:

The proposed changes promote the Government’s wider sustainability aspirations. Plans should promote a sustainable pattern of development that seeks to meet development needs, align growth and infrastructure, improve the environment, mitigate climate change (including by making effective use of land in urban areas) and adapt to its effects. The definition of green infrastructure is widened to include “blue” spaces and other natural features, to be capable of delivering economic, health and wellbeing benefits for nature, climate, local and wider communities and prosperity, as well as environmental benefits.

Longer term planning:

A longer term approach, with a vision of at least 30 years, is required for larger scale development to account for the likely timescale for delivery.

Strong policy requirements for well-designed and sustainable places and homes make good sense. The development industry can and should always be challenged to do better. It remains to be seen whether the additional concept of “beauty” will add to that debate - some fear that the new guidance could promote traditional forms of housing above others.

There is also concern that design tools could stifle creativity and innovation, whether by over-prescribing detail for large, strategic sites at the outline permission stage or setting narrow requirements for smaller sites in area-based codes. Fundamentally, the wording of the proposed guidance seems to steer away from variety in form and layout.

Ultimately, a place should not only look good, it should deliver homes at a range of price points that people want to buy and live in. The desire for many in the near future will remain a home with a garden and parking on plot. There is no specific reference in the context of the new guidance to ensuring affordability for purchasers, nor to viability for developers and landowners.  Flexibility of application of the guidance will be key and applicants and landowners will need to monitor the production of design guidance and codes to ensure that the outcome is deliverable.

 


For more information, please contact Claire Fallows or your usual Charles Russell Speechlys contact in our Real Estate Planning team.

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