NPPF Revisions and a National Model Design Code – Another Government Consultation

Policy Update
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The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government continues to keep us on our toes with yet another consultation. On 29th January 2021 the MHCLG commenced a consultation exercise to obtain views on draft revisions to the National Planning Practice Framework (NPPF) and a draft of the new National Model Design Code along with an accompanying guidance document.

The NPPF revision is not a full review – it is likely that a more significant overhaul will accompany the Government’s wider planning reforms when they progress. Instead, this revision seeks to include a number of policy changes primarily in response to the ‘Living With Beauty’ report, published a year ago by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC). The key changes to the NPPF demonstrate a concerted effort to ensure that beauty and placemaking are key considerations in policy-making and decision-taking.

The review also sweeps in a number of other updates and amendments, including:

  • Amendments relating to flood risk and climate change;
  • Changes arising from recent legal changes;
  • The removal of out-of-date text;
  • Inclusion of advice on the approach to historic statues;
  • An update to the use of Article 4 directions.

On affordable housing, a change to paragraph 64 is proposed which clarifies the previously hazy wording regarding affordable home ownership. Major developments involving the provision of housing should provide at least 10% of the total number of homes as affordable home ownership.

Biodiversity is pushed a little further into the spotlight and a new paragraph is inserted to state that development whose primary aim is to conserve or enhance biodiversity should be supported. In other developments, opportunities to improve biodiversity should be integral to a proposal’s design – particularly where this can secure measurable net gains for biodiversity and improve public access to nature.

On heritage, a new paragraph is added to clarify the approach to be taken to historic statues, plaques and memorials. Emphasis is to be placed upon explaining their historic and social context rather than removal, ‘where appropriate’.

Throughout the draft document references to sustainability are enhanced and refined in the context of the provision of open space, opportunities for sport and recreation, and encouraging sustainable transport.

However, the headline act is design. Beautiful design. The increased focus of the NPPF on design represents a key shift in emphasis and introduces some new words to the planning vocabulary. Quality in design and place-making are emphasised throughout, and increased weight is given to design policies and the importance of good design in decision-making. The use of masterplans and design codes seek to encourage a variety of well-designed and beautiful homes. Reference is also made to the value of area-based character assessments to encourage the efficient use of land, in a way that is also beautiful and sustainable. The word ‘beautiful’ makes its debut appearance in the NPPF. It appears five times in the text.  The BBBBC report spoke passionately on the battle between beauty and ugliness and recommended a strong focus on beauty in planning policy. The first two goals of the 2020 report were to ‘ask for beauty’ and ‘refuse ugliness’. The NPPF takes this on, albeit in a more conservative manner than the BBBBC report advocated.

The NPPF places greater emphasis on the need to refuse poorly designed development, and the move towards widespread use of masterplans, design codes and character assessments seeks to provide local planning authorities with the necessary tools to implement this approach. And right on cue along comes the draft National Model Design Code, also open for consultation.
Local Planning Authorities are instructed to prepare design guides or codes consistent with the principles of the National Design Guide (originally published in 2019 and updated in January 2021) and the National Model Design Code.

Whilst it will not be a national policy, the National Model Design Code is intended to form part of the government’s planning practice guidance. It provides guidance on the production of design codes, design guides and policies to encourage local planning authorities to, in turn, seek beautiful design.

The guide deals with the process of analysis and scoping, through vision-setting and master planning, and finally produces a design code with design parameters and area policies. These codes must be developed in consultation with local communities.

The document does not, however, tackle the pertinent issue of how overstretched and under-funded planning departments will take on this additional work. Even the BBBBC report clearly acknowledges that budgets for planning teams fell between 24% and 46% between 2010 and 2015. It addresses the obvious challenge of dedicating time and resources to the work required to develop the necessary skill-sets and documentation. The need to shift resources from development control towards strategic planning is highlighted, so that planners can be freed up to plan, and not process-manage. Key to this is the transition to a greater use of digital technology.

A shift to a digital planning culture is included in the Government’s recent White Paper, but there is still a long way to go before any of its proposals are implemented. So, the question of how planning authorities will resource this work remains unanswered. However, we look forward to seeing the outcome to this consultation exercise. There is an opportunity here for a reliable, practical solution to ensure good design forms a central pillar of the planning process. A clear, consistent and practical approach will be essential, one which offers some clarity on how to approach the subjective issue of good design.

The consultation closes on 27th March 2021.