Last Friday, while the prince was busy denying "ludicrous" and "risible" allegations by a former royal employee, a consortium including the Prince's Foundation, a charity that "exists to promote Charles' views on urban design and architecture", made it to a shortlist of five to masterplan the Ashford growth area in Kent.
Ashford is a central plank of the government's communities plan, which aims to relieve housing pressure in the South-east by building more than 200,000 houses in four "growth areas" by 2016. If the prince gets the nod, 31,000 houses will be added to the garden of England.
The Prince's Foundation is a serious, professionally run affair: it doesn't make hand-wringing complaints about monstrous carbuncles; it gets things done. More specifically, Charles and the foundation's design professionals have spent the past 10 years beating the drum for urban design codes – a way of speeding up planning while maintaining design quality (see What are design codes?, page 28).
In the process, Prince Charles has won himself a powerful admirer: deputy prime minister John Prescott. Although the prince and the pugnacious politician are about as alike as vintage claret and real ale, they are – worryingly for the other four Ashford bidders – speaking the same language when it comes to regeneration. "Why shouldn't this be the average housing estate?" Prescott asked after a visit to Poundbury, the Prince of Wales' model village in Dorset. "What is being done here is very important work for this country's urban future," he said. Hint, hint.
An old-boy network has appeared among the three top regeneration bodies: the ODPM, EP and the Prince’s Foundation
The two have even begun taking on aspects of each other's personalities. Prescott has been getting excited about design codes as a way of speeding his housing through the planning process (see Building, 24 October, page 11), and the prince is apparently adopting some of Prescott's no-nonsense tactics: it is understood that during the meeting to thrash out the codes for Poundbury, Charles himself insisted that the interested parties did not leave the room until they had reached a consensus.
Then there is the old-boy network, which has appeared among the three top regeneration bodies: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, English Partnerships and the Prince's Foundation. David Lunts, now director of urban policy at the ODPM and effectively Prescott's chief adviser, used to be chief executive of the foundation. "He used to run around after the prince," observes one regeneration specialist. "And now he runs around after Prescott."
David Warburton, formerly director of development and regeneration at the foundation, is now the director of EP's South-east region. He worked for the prince with Lesley Chalmers, chief executive of the English Cities Fund, on the foundation's Enquiry by Design pamphlet in July 2002. Steve Jackson, another former foundation man, is now a voice for EP in the South-west.
All three bodies are enthusiastic supporters of a design-coded development in Upton, Northamptonshire – so much so that a Cabinet Office official has been seconded to the prince's private office. Ashford council liked the Upton scheme so much that it has stipulated that the winning submission for its scheme should incorporate some of its features. And it certainly will: the judging panel consists of Ashford council, Kent council – and EP. The Prince's Foundation team should fancy their chances of meeting the Ashford council's demands, because it was they who devised the Upton codes.
Not that the Ashford decision is cut and dry:the Prince's Foundation is up against teams as experienced as EDAW and HTA Architect, HOK, Urban Initiatives and the Dutch architect Kuiper Compagnons. But there's little doubt that the prince's team is the favourite. A team that included John Prescott and Paul Murrain, senior design director at the foundation, visited the Seaside development in Florida last month, where they admired the design codes of Andres Duany, an authority on the new urbanism. Rather handily, Duany's firm DPZ is lining up with URS and the Prince's Foundation for Ashford.
Design codes take the confrontation out of planning. At the moment, it’s like a divorce court
David Birkbeck, Design for Homes
Design codes: good or bad?
The fly in the ointment is that, at present, there is no consensus within design and planning communities that codes are the best way forward. Roger Zogolovitch, developer of the much-praised Centaur Street flat development in Waterloo, London, thinks that there is a danger that codes will constrict design to such an extent that they lead to soulless clone estates. "They don't excite me," he says of coded designs. "They're too artificial. Defining the height and shape of the roof is too much control."
He cites the Seaside resort community in Florida, lauded by the ODPM as an exemplar of coded planning and a key example of America's new thinking on coded urban design. "The new urbanism puts a certain preciousness into communities, isolates them," he says. "With these gated communities, you get a community not of different people but of the same people."
Piers Gough, director at architect CZWG, agrees. "The implication of places like Lightmoor [a design code village near Birmingham] is paternalistic," he says. "They try to protect people from the real world. But what manifests itself as physical constraints can become social ones."
"The Prince of Wales is nervous of modernity," adds Zogolovitch. "He is comfortable looking backwards, to what he regards as safer ground." Many architects, and many homebuyers, may want something more lively.
Admittedly, the design codes have influential supporters. David Birkbeck of Design for Homes says his research indicates that homes on design-coded communities sell 50% faster than normal new-build, and Taylor Woodrow found that its development in Chelmsford took three to four months to negotiate through planning instead of the usual nine to 12. Three out of the four sites tested by Design for Homes were better off with the codes; but it found that the Coldwater estate, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, was worse than it would have been, because too much detail had been coded and money wasted on concrete landscaping to fit the requirements of the codes.
Birkbeck thinks the secret is for housebuilders to put up good negotiators who can get the codes right at the beginning, even if this means retraining staff to think about aesthetics as well as cost control. "It's a question of management," he says. "If you have that, [codes] take the uncertainty and confrontation out of planning. At the moment, it's like a divorce court."
It is the capacity of design codes to foster harmonious relationships that has won Birkbeck over. "The Upton scheme was the first time I've ever seen locally elected representatives, housebuilders and architects all sitting at the same planning meeting and all nodding their heads. Anything that does that has got to have legs," he says.
Even though Gough doubts the effects of design codes, he is blunt about their appeal to the government. "What the government likes about them is that developers and housebuilders can use second-rate designers: they don't need clever and intelligent architects," he says. "I can understand their thinking that architects can't always get things built fast enough."
Other voices in the industry remain to be convinced. Pierre Williams of the Housebuilder's Federation says the debate often confuses high quality with high density, pointing out that Poundburys are not needed in the North, where there is no call for high-density housing. "Poundbury is not a blueprint for a solution to the housing needs across the country," he says.
Williams also ruled out Poundbury as a template for the nearby Thames Gateway. "The notion of a code does not lend itself well to the variety needed," he says. Housebuilders may also worry that in the absence of distinctive designs, the brand loyalty built up among first-time buyers may seep away.