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Beauty Is Truth? What New UK Government Guidelines On Building Design Really Mean

New housing development in the Georgian style near Beccles, Norfolk

Does beauty matter in regeneration and housebuilding? Does anybody know what it means?

A year after the government asked a special commission to answer these questions, Housing and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick has responded to its report.

The aim was to find practical ways to make new housing developments appealing. The government wanted new schemes to be welcomed, rather than resisted as ugly intrusions.

The commission was co-chaired by the controversial right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who died last year, and by urban campaigner Nicholas Boys Smith. Its report ‘Living with beauty’ was published in January 2020.

To coincide with the response the government has also launched a new national design guide and amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework.

You can read the full set of documents and consultation proposals here.

In the meantime Bisnow tries to answer the questions that will be posed by developers.

1. Is this serious?

The commission’s report said its key advice was to “refuse ugliness” and “ask for beauty”. Concerns on what this means in practice aside, this is genuinely serious stuff that will impact all residential developments, as changes to the National Planning Policy Framework make clear. The commission wanted “beautiful placemaking” to be one of the main aims of the planning system rather than an accidental outcome; a more diverse pool of developers with different ideas, better involved with communities (including using digital technology to show them what things will look like); long-term investment not quick property flips; more emphasis on making places and less on building buildings; and lots more greenery.

2. So the government agreed with the commission?

Up to a point, yes. The changes the government proposes are not just window-dressing. Beauty, design quality and placemaking will be a strategic theme in proposed revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, positively supported design quality will be a key issue in consenting schemes, and the revised NPPF will make it clearer that poor quality schemes should be refused. To help make this possible there needs to be a clear measure of what good design is, so the government will insist local councils adopt design codes and will prepare a model design code to help them. Consultation is underway, and a national model design code will be ready by the spring.

3. In practice this means what?

The commission wanted clear rules to make sure blocks had, for instance, fronts and backs, that fronts faced the street and that boundaries marked facades. They also wanted clear ratios of height to width and some sense that the way streets as a whole look matters. The government’s draft design guide includes further detail on block structure, enclosure ratios of successful streets, urban grain, ratio and hierarchy of public spaces and guidance on successful parking arrangements and placement of street trees.

4. But what about Paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework?

This is where it gets interesting. The commission wanted the balance in design issues to move away from a judgment, which merely looked to avoid net harms, and moved instead to an approach that insisted each planning decision actively made places more beautiful. “Expect net gain not just no net harm,” it said. The government’s proposed changes to the crucial paragraph 130 of the NPPF do not go quite that far.

The commission wanted the paragraph to stress improvement, reading: “Well-designed development will take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions, be properly served by infrastructure and will contribute towards meeting the needs of the wider community.”

The government has allowed poor design to be a reason to refuse a scheme, and slightly widened planning officials' discretion. The old wording made it hard to use poor design as an argument if the scheme met the clear design expectations of existing policy. The new wording makes it possible to refuse on design grounds adding only that this is “especially” true if the proposal does not match local design guidelines.

The commission’s broader thrust is blunted. Instead of the words proposed by the commission the government has offered to attach “significant weight” to proposals that “help raise the standard of design more generally in an area”, a form of words that omits mention of community needs and infrastructure, and seems to suggest developers can use good design to offset less appealing elements of their schemes. This sounds a lot like the “no net harms” approach the commission wanted to avoid.