New London Architecture

Continued Uncertainty about Final Planning System Reforms and the Application of Design Codes in Practice

Thursday 17 February 2022

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Riëtte Oosthuizen

Head of Planning
HTA Design LLP

The NLA Planning Expert Panel gathered for their first meeting of 2022 on the 7th of February. The main topics of discussion were the uncertainty of the nature of the final planning reform proposals that will make its way into the Planning Bill  – with publication possibly early Autumn - and whether members’ experience of Design Codes in practice lived up to the promise of delivering quality design outcomes. 

The panel was joined by Colin Wilson, the Head of Regeneration for Old Kent Road for the London Borough of Southwark, who talked about his experience of leading the Old Kent Road Area Action Plan – seen as a strategic design code for the Borough and the Hatcham and Ilderton Draft Design Code; a Government funded Design Code pilot. Southwark was the only Borough in London chosen as a Design Code Pilot project by Government. 

Speculation on the final announcements contained within the Planning Bill focused on much more slimline, digitized Local Plans with interactive maps, digitization of community engagement and the incorporation of a system of ‘street votes’, i.e. much more local/street level design codes led by residents. It appeared that any suggestion of radical planning reform (and zoning) was out of the window; it has become more of an opportunity to ‘tidy up’ the planning system. Heritage and the improvement of the environment will feature strongly, but many ideas are currently tested for their legality. A cautionary warning voiced that the digitization of the planning system should be led by planners, rather than the prop-tech sector wanting to create a new market. The Levelling Up White Paper included messages on beauty, digitization, and design codes and indicated that the planning system might be used more proactively in the drive to net zero and to ensure nature recovery. However, there were mixed messaged on devolution. 

Resource cost is a major challenge in drawing up design codes. Government grants can’t cover the full extent of cost.  Whilst digitized engagement is useful, the production of a tangible model to form part of the community engagement process is helpful. The National Model Design Code is a useful tool, but does not have to be followed slavishly. It is very important to be a strong client when driving a design code. Officers need to be skilled to lead the process. In the case of the Hatcham and Ilderton Road Draft Design Code the document is very short at circa 36 pages, but deliberately so, as to be useful and include clear instructions on guiding design. There was interest across the panel on whether planning applications coming forward were delivering the quality of design intended. There seemed to be some deviation in cases but largely the design code appeared helpful. It should be recognized that mixed land ownerships require a long process of negotiation if design code implications cross site boundaries. To ensure the viability of design code guidelines, especially outside of London, it is important to base design codes on an up to date technical evidence base, e.g. building typology, flood risk, environmental sensitivity, and highway engineering. Colin Wilson expressed that it is fundamental that plan making and development management be tied together in the creation of a design code. Political support is key to that. There was some uncertainty amongst panel members on the legality of the requirement for a Design Code. Colin Wilson’s view was that land use is design by implication. Local plans should in effect be Design Codes. 

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Riëtte Oosthuizen

Head of Planning
HTA Design LLP


Planning

#NLAPlanning


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