Will they prove strong enough to save our high streets, asks Julia Park

Julia Park

As MHCLG launches its national model design code and the accompanying guidance, it’s a relief to see that the obsession with “beauty” that began with the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) seems to be waning. The words “beauty” and “beautiful” appeared more than 50 times in the 84-page white paper Planning for the Future (quite hard to plan for the past after all…), published last August. Contrast that with the new design code and guidance which only use these words six times, despite totalling nearly 150 pages.

So why the change of heart? Is it because the obsession with beauty feels a bit clumsy in light of the impacts of the pandemic – because the government has realised that it doesn’t know how to define or even recognise beauty and that is becoming a bit embarrassing – or because the latest documents have been produced and overseen by built environment professionals who recognise that because beauty is so subjective, it’s not a useful metric for policymaking?

One way or the other, I suspect ministers are starting to take the hint. Their latest initiative, the improbably named Office for Place, also suggests they might be ready for a new word, if not a new face. The office is being headed by Nicholas Boys Smith, who chaired the BBBBC following the death of Roger Scruton. Undoubtedly articulate and influential, but unfortunately not a qualified design professional.

So, what do we make of the national model design code and the accompanying guidance? Apart from being rather long (ironic given that the planning white paper called for local plans to be no more than 50 pages) they are a very good, generic introduction to urban design and place-making principles. Helpfully adopting the same 10 principles as those used in the National Design Guide, the new documents seem well-written and well-illustrated – if a little “safe”. Robert Jenrick and Christopher Pincher stand to learn a great deal and it’s worth the effort just for that.

It will be interesting to see how many planning authorities manage to create the bespoke local version of the design code (the only democratic tool available to them if the planning reforms go ahead) and how many simply adopt it as it stands. I’m still keen to understand how it affects the planning guidance that the GLA has been working on for the last four years, too. The consultation on the four modules that make up the Good Quality Housing for all Londoners SPG (which also runs to hundreds of pages) closed last month – just as the Secretary of State finally signed off the new London Plan, three years after it first went to public consultation. At over 500 pages and weighing over two kilos, this undoubtedly wins the prize for size, but that has never been a worthy accolade when it comes to policy – a message that most policymakers still struggle to understand.

The main concern about the national design guide and design code is whether they are strong enough to deliver on their place-making advice in the post-pandemic world we now inhabit. The early signs aren’t encouraging. They have been published alongside a version of the NPPF with tracked changes which, in theory, seek to incorporate the recommendations of the BBBBC. Among the minor changes, there is an explicit threat to make it even harder for local authorities to seek Article 4 immunity from the ever-expanding building types that can be converted to residential use through permitted development (PD) rights.

This means that the latest consultation on expanding PDR (the innocuously titled Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure, which I touched on in my final column of last year) poses an even greater threat to our high streets and town centres than I realised at the time. Normally an exponent of “housing first”, when it comes to the high street it almost has to be “housing last” if our neighbourhoods stand a chance of living up to the expectations set out in the design guide and the design code. Identity, character, mixed-use, public realm and community are all strong themes in these new documents, and rightly so. We already know that far too many new suburban developments lack the local amenities and social infrastructure that are so crucial to our sense of community – and that they are impoverished as a result.

We also know that the shifts to online shopping and homeworking have accelerated, but I haven’t heard anyone say that community life doesn’t matter any more. On the contrary, it feels as though it matters more than ever. High streets, town centres and public squares play important roles in our daily lives. How we re-use the shops, restaurants and coffee bars that can’t survive covid will be critical to our ability to socialise with our friends, meet new people, enjoy shared passions, learn new languages, skills and hobbies, stay fit, and give and receive help in the years ahead.

These things may sound low-key, and in many ways they are – but their impact on our mental health shouldn’t be underestimated. How tragic, therefore, that the government’s only answer to the re-purposing of community assets is to incentivise their conversion to residential through another form of PDR.

I have no problem in principle with converting the upper storeys to apartments (although access is often difficult) but don’t destroy the public realm by selling off the ground-floor assets which are the very thing that make the public realm public. And don’t do any of it by the back door. If it’s such a good idea, trust the local community with the decision by requiring the proposals to go through the planning system. It is obvious that the façades of most retail outlets would need significant modifications if these buildings are going to be lived in. To date, the newer PDRs (including office-to-resi conversions) have not permitted external changes. Unless the proposed new Class E does so, it’s very difficult to see how it could work at all, but it’s equally difficult to imagine the visual impact of uncontrolled modifications.

MHCLG seems to have conveniently forgotten that the BBBBC was very critical of PDR. It will be interesting to see whether Nicholas Boys Smith reminds them of that when he takes his seat in the new Office of Place – assuming, of course, that it hasn’t been converted to housing before he gets there.