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James Parker looks at the imminent launch of the National Model Design Code for housebuilding

Recent weeks have been a continuous stream of stories about COVID in the national media.

In any other year, the imminent launch of the National Model Design Code for housebuilding might have stirred up a small storm, but it has raised barely a breeze.

As the country is asked to ‘Build Back Better’ as we return to normality, with the vaccines beginning to really make a difference, the Government is intervening to an unusual degree in house design with its recent consultation on the incoming Code.

The Government hopes this piece of guidance will be used to improve local design codes prepared by council planners, and forms part of its revisions to England’s National Planning Policy Framework, which focus on ‘beauty’ of design as much as developments’ practicality.

This might please more ‘NIMBYs’ but it won’t help us reach the 300,000 homes per year

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Data File

Refusing ugliness

The work of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, headed by the late, and somewhat controversial philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, has theoretically profound implications for developers.

Its report empowered planners to “ask for beauty, refuse ugliness and promote stewardship,” and made 45 “detailed” policy recommendations.

The National Model Design Code however goes further, providing detailed guidance on producing design codes, guides and policies.

These locally produced codes are not just woolly guidance, but a “set of illustrated design requirements that provide specific, detailed parameters for the physical development of a site or area.”

While the national Design Code is only a “toolkit” to guide local authorities, the outcome in local planning decisions could be more final for many developments than the news of design guidance may normally suggest.

This might mean more ‘NIMBYs’ are pleased by refusals of planning, but it won’t help us reach the 300,000 homes per year.

Conflicting guidelines

Housebuilder Redrow (normally known for producing a slew of good news stories) has sounded the alarm that the new Code contains “conflicting guidelines,” and does not align with what homebuyers want from developments – in terms of both the overall plans and individual designs.

According to Redrow’s YouGov research, 77 per cent of consumers wanted a two-storey detached home, and only 3 or 4 per cent, respectively, wanted a terraced home or townhouse.

A preference for detached homes was common among local councillors too, of both political colours, on grounds of “positive impact on quality of life.”

The Design Code, complains Redrow, “includes a focus on terraced homes and gentle density,” whereas its survey findings “show that consumers are overwhelmingly in favour of lower density housing.”

A different focus on cars

Also the new Code proposes much more discreet car parking, for example a “preference towards rear parking lanes and courtyard parking.”

However, Redrow says that councillors surveyed said that their populations’ “most pressing design need” was private driveways, which is somewhat depressing, but inevitable due to our car-based society.

As a result, 70 per cent said they wanted to promote houses with driveways to the front or side, and only 14 per cent supported the idea of “unallocated parking in car barns.”

And on the streetscape, 88 per cent of consumers wanted streets with homes “of the same style but with their own individual character,” and 71 per cent of councillors backed neighborhoods with “names and distinctive identities.”

According to Redrow, this was at odds with the new Code, which “requires repetition of built form and roofscape.”

Aspirations versus efficiency

This all exposes a fundamental schism between what might be right in terms of efficient land-use, and access to existing urban amenities, and what people have come to expect and aspire to in terms of a place to live.

It requires a large number of higher-density three-storey townhouse developments across the land demonstrating they can be just as desirable as modest semi-detached suburban developments of old (helped by good sustainable design and sensible infrastructure), before what is a vast oil tanker of consumer conservatism slowly starts to turn.

This will then hopefully see the councillor fraternity – beyond the more experimentally-inclined – following the tide the meantime, prepare for battle!

James Parker is editor of Architects Data File