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Putting the National Model Design Code under the microscope

Andy Delaney (pictured), director of national property regeneration at AspinallVerdi, examines the government’s new National Model Design Code.

On 30 January MHCLG announced a consultation on proposed updates to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England.  

A National Model Design Code was also published as a sister document. Both documents are now available for public comment until 27th March.  Ministers claim that the draft design code being published will help ensure new developments are “beautiful” and “well designed”. It builds on a body of work the government has produced on good urban design principles, including the National Design Guide.

The guidance is directed at local authorities and provides them with a baseline standard of quality and practice to take into account when considering development proposals alongside the upcoming planning reforms.

The updates are intended to implement policy changes in relation to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report. The National Model Design Code sets out requirements for the policies proposed in the NPPF, and taken together, these have the potential to transform the way we plan and build places.

Good quality design features throughout the revised NPPF, with ‘beautiful’ added to the definition of sustainable development in national policy for the first time. Detail provided in later paragraphs includes access to nature as a feature of good design, and the weight given to design in decision-making strengthened through requirements for compliance with local and national design guides.

There is a fear however that design quality will rightly be imposed upon housing schemes, smaller schemes will come under significant scrutiny whereas the larger housing schemes, with their greater economies of scale, will be granted with lesser consideration of their design quality contribution to place.

There is further fear that these extra costs will impact negatively on regeneration led development, with some commentators worried that we may need to sacrifice affordable housing to achieve sustainable development.  

Viability has often addressed the tension between competing interests such as affordable housing and other planning obligations; and affordable housing and housing mix. In theory, all could be achievable and it would be the land price that would take the hit.  However, theory and practice are two different things. When the land has little or no value, where will the money come from to subsidise enhanced quality of design and sustainability?  

We are currently preparing a viability case for a Registered Provider for a proposed 100% affordable scheme in a challenging area and the scheme is welcomed by the authority as a model for the quality of future development in the area. The proposal for a 100% affordable scheme is entirely in-keeping with the requirements of the neighbourhood.

The scheme will be an exemplar in respect of quality of design and enhanced sustainability measures, which has increased the overall cost of the scheme. The high cost of these and the fact that the scheme is 100% affordable, plus the challenging nature of the surrounding area, means that the scheme is unlikely to be able to afford other non-housing section 106 contributions.

The local planning authority in this instance is placed with a difficult choice between promoting sustainability measures or providing important obligations to mitigate the impact of the development

This, however, is not a typical scenario. More often the local planning authority’s choice is between affordable housing and other section 106 obligations and it is often affordable housing that loses out.

As local planning authorities move towards promoting a more sustainable way of living, these tensions are going to arise on a more frequent basis. Whilst some might welcome this control of development profit, there is a legitimate point that landowners will decide that there is a limit to how far this can go before it starts to become uneconomic to release land. This has particular resonance in challenging areas of limited demand. In recent years, I have seen several transformational schemes collapse because landowners are unwilling to sell their land for (what they believe) is a low value.

On sites with a high existing or alternative use value, however, the choice for the local planning authority will be stark. It may be that the emerging proposals for a beefed-up Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which includes some of those existing s106 contributions, will just make some sites unviable without public sector intervention.  

Despite the costs of the pandemic, it is vital that the government follows up on its rhetoric and invest in urban regeneration and that intervention funding is available to promote brownfield regeneration.

Time will tell whether the national design code will bring about the much-trumpeted design quality that we should all strive for.  Seeking to improve design can only be deemed a positive, however the viability challenge will remain. We desperately need to change the way in which we live and true sustainable development is part of that change that we have to find a way of affording it.

Photo Credit – Supplied/Pexels (Pixabay)

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