Design codes: what are they and why do they matter? 

By Ruth Richardson | 04 June 2023

We’re all aware of the pressures facing local authorities to deliver new homes. However, with changes to housing policy and the National Planning Policy Framework on the cards, coupled with the requirement for new development to be of a high quality and increasingly pioneering, this certainly doesn’t come without challenges.

Too often, we see development which is piecemeal and inconsiderate to the context – or the delivery of schemes which are poor quality or unaffordable. Sadly, these are accepted because they are required to meet the local authority’s targets and not because they meet the vision to deliver any long-term value.

Design codes have a role to play in helping to address these issues.

A design code is a set of simple, concise, and illustrated design requirements that provide parameters for the development of a site or area. They frequently support outline or hybrid planning applications to set out the rules for future phases of a site – an approach which many built environment professionals will be familiar with. Councils and housing providers produce design guides or codes to give detail on the standards required in any housing coming forward under their ownership – a guide sets out best practice design guidance whilst a code is more prescriptive or precise about what is required. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of climate related codes and guides, for example the LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide, which sets out the path to zero carbon.

With the recent publication of the National Model Design Code (NMDC), local authorities are now expected to produce these documents as part of a national strategy to instil quality in emerging developments. The NMDC requires a holistic approach to a design code – one that addresses the entirety of the place and all aspects of the built environment, with sustainability embedded at its heart and not a standalone subject.

Undoubtedly, design codes are beneficial. They act as both a tool or benchmark for local authorities to use when assessing and determining planning applications, adding robustness to the design process, and removing an element of subjectivity which may otherwise exist.

They are also a solid resource for developers to utilise as they progress planning applications. Setting out key principles from the outset, design codes provide applicants with an understanding of the standards and quality required, in advance of pre-application meetings or submissions to the council. In turn, this should streamline the planning process with the standard of schemes brought forward higher, and the need for additional council resource or an extended pre-application process reduced. Likewise, if application refusals are also reduced, so is the likelihood of an appeal.

A successful design code will be embedded in the place, with rules and parameters which respond to the existing or historical context of the place and its varying characters, in order to ensure that new development fits comfortably into its surroundings, whilst meeting the vision and aspirations of the local authority. 

Brentwood BC has seen these benefits first hand with its Town Centre Design Guide, produced by Levitt Bernstein. The guide, which is an adopted Supplementary Planning Document and holds planning weight to enforce the council’s vision, is an invaluable tool in ensuring that new development in the town is respectful of its context; of an appropriate scale, mass and materiality based on its setting; and considers its surrounding public realm, impact and contribution to the wider town centre – something which is particularly important given the arrival of Crossrail in the town and the surge in development that Brentwood is experiencing. 

The Gravesham Design Code, which we are developing in conjunction with the council, is also taking this place-led approach. The code underpins the council’s expectations for quality in buildings and public realm; improvements to connectivity and access to blue and green infrastructure; contextual yet distinctive buildings; and ensuring that Gravesham’s unique character and heritage is not lost at the expense of new emerging proposals. Through engaging the community in the production of the code, the document is truly embedded in Gravesham and responds to local need whilst promoting community and place-led regeneration across the Borough.

Design Codes are, however, not without their challenges. Whilst a code must be prescriptive enough to ensure quality is delivered and enforce a council’s objectives, it must also be agile and flexible enough to enable, not disable, development from coming forward.

A code which over-utilises regulatory rules stipulating what ‘must’ happen may limit creativity and prevent designers from bringing their influence to a place. Flexibility is also important to enable codes to adapt to changing market conditions or needs of a place over time. Historically, this has been important where codes support future development phases across many years, but under the NMDC this will be required to ensure that codes have longevity and can be utilised by authorities across several plan periods. 

Councils may wish to engage consultants or experts to aid them in the production of a code, but here the challenge will be in ensuring that those commissioned work closely with all Council departments to create a code which reflects collective aspirations and references relevant policy or other regulatory documents where applicable. The Council too has a responsibility to uphold the principles of the code throughout the whole development process to ensure its success. Of course, uncertainty in the proposed changes to the planning system add a further degree of complexity.

However, challenges aside, there is a clear and exciting opportunity for councils and built environment professionals to work together to improve the quality of our towns and cities. We can, and should, be doing new development better, and design codes are an important tool in making this happen.   

Ruth Richardson is senior urban designer at Levitt Bernstein

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