Design codes are like Huntley & Palmers biscuit tins: people see different things in them. In fact, the only thing everyone agrees about is that they are here to stay. We get to the bottom of the argument.

Instead of spending money on lawyers and inquiries, developers can spend it on planning and design

John Prescott, deputy prime minister

How can we improve the built environment and get planning permission in a reasonable time? there is a huge sense of frustration in the industry.

John Oldham director, Countryside Properties

Six influences on design that you should know about

1 Design coding

CABE’s guide, The Use of Urban Design Codes, was published last November and sets out the key issues about coding, as well as giving its definition of what a code should include. It says it should have two related components. The first is a 3D masterplan, showing the intended arrangement of spaces and buildings. The second is a set of written requirements explaining the plan. This should include dimensions, and it must address detailed issues such as the use of materials, landscaping and the mix of tenancies. CABE advocates codes that are not “so prescriptive that they give too little scope for distinctive architectural expression.” CABE concludes that coding is applicable to some larger schemes such as town extensions, major brownfield redevelopment and new settlements, but believes it won’t work for complex infill schemes.

2 New Urbanism

The American school of New Urbanism and the Prince’s Foundation share similar views – both promote design codes in an atavistic, pattern-book form. In the USA, new urbanism has been a way of creating higher density, walkable neighbourhoods, but in the UK such schemes are already being created without the rigour of pattern-book coding. Nonetheless, John Prescott was impressed by US New Urbanist thinking when he visited Seaside in Florida, the model for the film The Truman Show. But new urbanism has plenty of detractors, including the Bedfordshire police force, which regards the permeable layouts and car parking courts as creating crime-friendly locations on a par with the now-infamous Radburn estate layouts.

3 Building for Life standard

Building for Life, the initiative established by the HBF, CABE and the Civic Trust, promotes design excellence, primarily through its Building for Life standard. Housebuilders apply to have their schemes appraised for the Building for Life standard, and should, if they are lucky enough, be rewarded with a gold or silver standard. Only seven schemes have achieved the coveted gold standard so far (the one pictured to the left is Copthorn Homes’ Abode scheme near Harlow in Essex), but a lot more could reach this benchmark, as there are rumours that it could be required on more sites – notably those sold by English Partnerships. The standard’s assessment criteria cover a scheme’s character, its roads, parking and pedestrianisation, its design and construction, and its environment and community. Marks are awarded for such innovations as outperforming minimum standards in the Building Regulations, the use of advances in construction technology, and mixed tenure.

4 Egan’s seven points of sustainability

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has got troubleshooter Sir John Egan to tackle the raising of design standards from another angle: by investigating how professional skills can be improved to deliver the communities plan. As part of Egan’s review, a seven-point definition of a sustainable community has been developed. These are: social and cultural; environmental; housing and the built environment; transport and connectivity; economy; public, private, community and voluntary services; and governance.

5 Places of safety This month, the ODPM is due to publish its guidance to planning out crime in a substantial document called Safer Places. The guidance extends the Secured by Design concept from housing to all forms of development, and contains a series of case studies that act as positive models for the industry.

6 Prescott’s wow factor If you thought a shining stainless steel kitchen was enough to give a home the wow factor, then think again. John Prescott has much bigger things in mind in his own personal pursuit of wow for new communities. In speeches, Prescott has highlighted landmarks designed by signature architects, such as Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum, Foster and Partners’ Swiss Re building in London and the Deep Aquarium in his home town of Hull (pictured above), designed by Terry Farrell and Partners. He wants to see the same wow factor in the new communities, but has been less forthcoming so far in citing residential projects that have achieved it. Prescott has, however, described Copthorn Homes’ Abode scheme at Newhall in Harlow, Peabody Trust’s BedZED in Sutton, and the Greenwich Millennium Village, as “fantastic” – which, although we wouldn’t want to hype up the deputy prime minister’s words, must be pretty close if not equal to a wow.