Robert Jenrick sets up Office for Place to ‘pioneer beauty witihin the planning system’

The government is today publishing a draft national model design code which it says will play a central role in banishing “ugliness” from new developments.

The model code, which it hopes will be adapted by communities all over England to reflect their local contexts, was debvised by David Rudlin of Urbed. 

It provides a checklist of design principles to consider for new developments, such as street character, building type and facade as well as environmental impact and wellbeing factors.

Robert Jenrick addresses Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report launch

Robert Jenrick addresses the launch of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report at the Garden Museum in London a year ago. Today’s announcements are in part a response to its recommendations

The code will be piloted among 20 communities, with expressions of interest already open for the first 10 councils that want help creating their own versions. Successful authorities will be eligible for a share of £500,000 – around £50,000 each – from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

They will also receive support from a new Office for Place which is to be created “within the next year”. This will “pioneer design and beauty within the planning system”, said the government.

It added: “The new organisation will draw on Britain’s world-class design expertise to support communities to turn their visions of beautiful design into local standards that all new buildings will be required to meet.”

The government must break down the monopoly held by a small group of developers

RIBA president Alan Jones

An interim Office of Place will be established “immediately” within MHCLG with a transition board chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith who co-led the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) alongside the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. His appointment, along with many of today’s announcements, was previously trailed.

Boys Smith said he was delighted the government was implementing so many of the BBBBC’s recommendations, published exactly a year ago today in the report Living With Beauty.

Nicholas Boys Smith

Nicholas Boys Smith

“There is no fundamental reason that prevents the creation of streets and squares, homes as places where we can lead happy, healthy, and connected lives,” he said. “In these places we can know more of our neighbours and be more joyful as we go about our daily lives. As a society we have not done this, and we are paying the consequences.”

MHCLG promised the new design code would be accompanied by revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) giving councils more power to reject planning applications that are deemed ugly or poor quality. It said it was the first time the word “beauty” will have been specifically included in planning rules since the system was created in 1947. It will also require all new streets to be “lined by trees”.

But schemes brought forward under permitted development (PD) rights will be exempt from most of the rules.

The proposals have now gone out for consultation for eight weeks.

RIBA president Alan Jones said the institute would be engaging in the consultation. He praised the government for its focus on quality and design and acknowledgement of the “critical role” local councils play in creating communities.

But he said the draft design code must “match the rhetoric and provide a blueprint for safe, sustainable design”.

Alan Jones

RIBA president Alan Jones

He added: “A new national design guide will not solve the crisis of quality alone. The government must break down the monopoly held by a small group of developers who often put upfront cost ahead of longer-term value, and provide tougher sanctions to those who bend regulations to prioritise profit over people’s health and wellbeing.”

The changes to the NPPF – although the details are yet to be revealed – were welcomed by Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute who said a survey last year showed 88% of RTPI members wanted greater powers to reject poor design but lacked the resources to do so. At the same time, 61% of planners said they had the skills, knowledge and experience to focus on design quality - but not the capacity.

“I am therefore delighted that the government has listened and pledged to not only strengthen the national planning framework to empower local planning authorities to prioritise design and drive up quality, but has also committed to inject much-needed funding in this area,” she said.

The government also announced the creation of a new £4m Community Housing Fund to support grass-roots organisations like community land trusts bringing forward local housebuilding projects for the £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme. It said this would diversify the homebuilding sector, improving design, sustainability and build quality by developing modern methods of construction.

The government also unveiled more details of its plans to help communities nominate local heritage sites including historic or modern buildings, art and memorials for local listing.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick said together the measures would “help the country to build back better and ensure current and new residents alike will benefit from beautiful homes in well-designed neighbourhoods as we recover from this pandemic”.

He added: ““We should aspire to pass on our heritage to our successors, not depleted but enhanced. In order to do that, we need to bring about a profound and lasting change in the buildings that we build, which is one of the reasons we are placing a greater emphasis on locally popular design, quality and access to nature, through our national planning policies and introducing the National model design codes.

“These will enable local people to set the rules for what developments in their area should look like, ensuring that they reflect and enhance their surroundings and preserve our local character and identity.

“Instead of developers forcing plans on locals, they will need to adapt to proposals from local people, ensuring that current and new residents alike will benefit from beautiful homes in well-designed neighbourhoods.”