The government has launched a consultation on a proposed National Model Design Code (NMDC) for developments in England. But what do these much-anticipated changes mean for local authorities, developers and designers? Chris Wong, associate and urban designer at Gillespies, takes a more detailed look at the proposed changes and the unanswered questions.
Coding Beauty – A designer’s overview of the National Model Design Code
On 30th January 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published a new draft National Model Design Code (NMDC) and accompanying Guidance Notes. This new NMDC is a comprehensive toolkit that provides detailed guidance on the production of local design guides and codes to promote good design and beautiful places. The NMDC was published alongside the draft revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which involves a partial review triggered by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBC) Living with Beauty Report.
The above documents are now under consultation until the 27th March, the government is also welcoming expressions of interest from 10 local authorities to take part in the testing of the NMDC, where funding is available to help them evaluate aspects of the process and content of the document.
Evolution of Design Codes
Before we start reviewing the latest NMDC, it is worth understanding the brief timeline of design guidance evolution over recent years that has resulted in this latest version.
National Design Guide (NDG)
Published on 1st October 2019, the National Design Guide introduces the ‘NDG Wheel’ comprised of 10 characteristics under the three Cs - Character, Community and Climate. It has since been updated and references that the NDG needs to be read alongside the NMDC.
Living with Beauty Report
Published on 30th January 2020 by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC), this report proposes to safeguard the values which matter to people – beauty, community, history and landscape. It also proposes that the government should create an independent commission to monitor the implementation of the report. Recommendations from the BBBBC’s report include:
- Making beauty and placemaking a strategic policy;
- Putting an emphasis on approving good design as well as refusing poor quality schemes;
- Asking local authorities to produce their own design codes;
- Asking for new streets to be tree-lined; and
- Improving biodiversity and access to nature through design.
Planning for the Future White Paper (PfFWP)
Published for consultation in August 2020, this White Paper sets out the government's proposals for ’once in a generation' reform and simplification of England's planning system. It suggests making design expectations more visual and legible, and design codes should be prepared locally with community involvement. It also suggests if local design codes are not in place, the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and Manual for Streets should guide decisions on development proposals.
National Model Design Code (NMDC)
This leads us to the recently published National Model Decide Code (NMDC), Guidance Notes for Design Codes and the draft revisions to the NPPF, following the publication of all the above guidance documents.
Design codes are not a new idea, they have been used over recent decades to guide building design and urban developments of varying scales. They have been particularly instrumental for local authorities to mitigate against the characterless large-scale post-war housing development, car-dominated urban sprawls and engineering-led highways design. Some of them have been more successful than others. Now with the new NMDC and proposed revisions to the NPPF, it is clear that the success of new emerging design codes, and thus future developments, will rely heavily on whether they are ‘beauty’ compliant in policy terms.
Beautiful vs. ugly
The proposed revisions to the NPPF introduce the concept of ‘beautiful places’ without actually defining in policy terms what is meant by this very subjective concept.
The government’s response to the Living with Beauty Report does not see beauty as a cost to be negotiated away once planning permission has been obtained. Instead, it repeats the BBBBC’s assertion that ‘Beauty includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into a home. It is not merely a visual characteristic but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there.
Another way to address the policy definition of beauty is to consider what is ‘not beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ as per BBBBC’s assertion that ‘Ugliness means buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly and which violate the context in which they are placed’.
This is more objective and helpful as it puts ‘ugly’ buildings into their context. The new NMDC repeatedly mentions the aim to create ‘beautiful places’ and provides more definitive phases and checklists to guide local authorities and developers to ensure their proposed developments are beautiful and well designed.
How does it work?
The NMDC is not a statement of national policy nor a design code. Instead, it serves as universal guidance or a template to help develop and shape local codes. The NMDC begins by referencing and expanding on the NDG Wheel, the three Cs and 10 characteristics of a well-designed place [see image below]:
The colourfully detailed checklist on page 7 [see image below] further expands the 10 characteristics into 64 sub-criteria in total. Local codes can include all or some of them based on the type and scale of sites allocated, as shown in the columns to the right.
The NMDC is also accompanied by an expansive guidance notes document that further expands on possible contents for local codes. The structure and layout of this note are highly graphical and legible for the public, local authorities and councillors to follow. The note includes plenty of three-dimensional hand-drawn diagrams supported by well-recognised, best-practice precedents, which are very effective in explaining some of the more abstract spatial parameters, such as the various types of development block, street layout, building frontage, setback distance requirement etc.
Most of the information included can be found in other guidance such as MfS, BfhL etc. However, its comprehensive format and considered structure works as a good urban design manual to demonstrate some of the most commonly used space planning terminologies and technical parameters.
The draft NMDC and accompanying Guidance Notes are both currently under consultation, it will be interesting to review feedback gathered from both public and private sectors and observe how they embrace the drafts. From an urban design perspective, there are still a few questions worth considering in this draft NMDC:
- Where will the new local code sit in relation to local plans? Will they sit parallel to the various SPDs, DPDs, AAPs, SRFs, Masterplan Frameworks, Conservation Area appraisals etc? Or will they all merge as one combined local code guidance?
- Will local codes be embedded in policy or would they be supplementary or ‘add-on’ guidance?
- Will future developments have to show compliance within all 64 criteria in the checklist? If not, what are the more essential criteria to address, and is there a ‘passing score’?
- Will the process to demonstrate compliance with the local codes replace outline planning approval? And will Design and Access Statements get replaced by a compliance statement/ checklist for local codes?
As urban designers, planners, landscape architects and architects, our main goal for designing a new city, town or neighbourhood is to set out a strong vision that responds to its context and is placemaking and sustainably driven. Design guiding tools such as local codes can only help deliver and regulate the vision and framework through time. The real question is, are the 64 criteria in the NMDC enough to fully regulate an innovative masterplanning process and capture the true essence of ‘building beautiful’?
A robust viable delivery mechanism is also extremely essential when it comes to actualising new developments. The quality and process of developing and building should be carefully regulated, even if a scheme is fully compliant with local codes.
It is almost certain that the approved NMDC will play a key role in decision making for future developments, and we look forward to working closely with local authorities, developers and academic institutions to further explore ways to maximise the potential of this new NMDC and create beautiful places that add real value to people’s lives, now and in the future.
Draft NMDC and revised NPPF consultation feedback page:
Press release for draft NMDC and revised NPPF