Robert Jenrick’s Grand Designs

February 6, 2021 7:49 PM
By Iain Roberts in LibDem Voice
Originally published by Babergh South Suffolk Liberal Democrats

pgd6 (Photo by Robert Thomas on Unsplash)The government launched the National Model Design Code last month.

Releasing important consultations over the weekend has become rather a tradition for MHCLG. Maybe they're not fans of The Masked Singer.

Key to the Design Code is a belief that beautiful design can be objectively determined, and that people are more likely to support development in their area if the new neighbourhood looks attractive.

The Model Design Code is a good piece of work. Developed by consultancy URBED, it sets out a concise and understandable recipe for high quality places and attractive buildings. It includes guidance on coding plans, masterplans, movement, nature, public space, the built form, use of space and buildings, car parking and design.

Will it deliver?

The government has two stated aims. First, they want to turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs: Not In My Back Yard to Yes, In My Back Yard! In their vision, they see opponents of new development gazing upon the beauty wrought by developers and becoming converts. Second, they desire to improve our built environment - to make our green and pleasant land more green and more pleasant, even as we build on it. Every road should be lined with trees, Robert Jenrick has ordained. Both are noble objectives, but are they achievable?

There are several issues we should be concerned about: not so much the Code itself, but what the government proposes to do with it.

Provably popular

The phrase "provably popular" appears without much explanation in both the guidance notes for the design code and last August's Planning for the Future white paper. The white paper suggests Neighbourhood Plans would be repurposed to take on the job of creating design codes, while the Model Design Code talks about workshops, surveys and forums.

When would all this happen? During the six-week Local Plan consultation period, or at some other time? Who would decide what was popular? People who engage in planning consultations are more likely to be older and wealthier, with the time, experience and confidence to get involved. If we really want to engage the community in deciding how developments should look, we need to include the busy parents, young professionals and schoolchildren.

What is beauty?

Last April, I ran a study to see which building designs people preferred. Most respondents liked more traditional designs with detailing that made them look interesting both from a distance and close-up. A London townhouse came out top, with a 1970s social housing block propping up the bottom of the table.

The most interesting finding was that building professionals - developers, architects and planners - had very different ideas to everyone else on which buildings looked the best. The gap was far greater than between men and women or even between the young and old. Several larger studies have confirmed this result.

A local design code may look very different if it's been driven by professionals rather than ordinary people.

Permitted Development by the back door?

In its desire to get more homes built in recent years, the government has supercharged Permitted Development Rights. An office block can, for example, be converted into apartments with minimal planning permission. It greatly reduces the control local authorities have over these developments and many are concerned that the policy is ushering in the slums of tomorrow.

What if the design code was used, not as one item to be considered as part of a planning application, but a tickbox to bypass the planning application altogether? Under the proposals, developments in areas designated as "Growth" or "Renewal" would not require a planning application if they complied with the design code and other policies in the Local Plan.

That could be a single house, or it could be an estate of hundreds of new houses being approved without any public consultation or planning committee.

Who's picking up the bill?

Good design codes are hard to write. Many planning departments don't have the skills to develop a local design code of the quality required, nor the time to widely consult with residents. The guidance notes set out the challenge, saying:

"The team responsible for producing a code will need to be an inter-disciplinary team of built environment professionals and may include architects, landscape architects, urban designers and local planning authority officers. "

There may be one code covering a whole council area, or multiple codes. In my borough of Stockport, it's hard to imagine the same code working for the town centre and for the small village of Strines, nestling on the edge of the Peak District.

This will need to be done properly, but there is - as yet - no hint that government funding would accompany the burdens.

Bait and switch

The model code says that a mix of uses - houses, shops, cafes and offices, for example - will be required in town and city centres and encouraged or permitted elsewhere. That's a sensible approach. Local authorities need to retain good control over the mix of uses to help retail centres stay vibrant, and the challenges today are greater than ever.

But the government has recently made it much easier for developers to change the use of a property without planning permission and proposes going even further: from a shop to a house or office, for example. That makes a mockery of the design code. A developer could build in accordance with the use mix laid down in the local design code, then convert everything to offices a week later.

Good or bad?

The model design code has been welcomed, and rightly so. The implementation is far more challenging. None of the issues I've raised need be show-stoppers. A properly-funded scheme that engaged the whole community and didn't allow developers to avoid consultation on their planning applications would undoubtably lead to higher-quality developments. Whether the government is willing to deliver any of that…who knows if Robert Jenrick will be able to see the wood for the trees that he wants lining every new road.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment . This article first appeared in LibDem Voice