The lack of fuss over the new National Design Guide is a mark of how widely accepted have become the principles of urban design but it won’t have an impact unless it has teeth, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

I remember an interminable meeting in the mid 1990s arguing with the city engineers in Manchester over the wording of the Hulme Guide to Development. They were deeply unhappy about our draft guidance which stated, among other things, that “all streets should end in other streets”, “all buildings should face on to streets” and “all streets should meet at crossroads”.

None of this was acceptable in their view. Indeed it was downright irresponsible. However, having been worn down by our eloquent arguments and more pertinently by the backing we had from the council leadership, the engineers said, “Well OK: we don’t agree, but provided these rules only apply to Hulme and are treated as an experiment then I suppose…”*

We had similarly fraught discussions with planning officers, the police architectural liaison people and the local housing associations. Urban design was politically fraught at a time when the predominant development model, even in inner city Hulme, was the semi-detached house and the cul-de-sac.

No such controversy has greeted the National Design Guide published last month by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and produced by a team from Tibbalds and the Design Council. Despite covering all of the main headings of the Hulme Guide and saying much the same thing, the content has barely raised an eyebrow. It is a measure of how far we have travelled that the principles of urban design have become so widely accepted that they are regarded as motherhood and apple pie.

The 10 headings in the document and the 29 policies are also, I would suggest, well understood by planners, architects, urban designers and, yes, even highway engineers. They are also familiar to most planning authorities and developers (certainly all of our clients, including the volume housebuilders).

No one is going to read the document, slap their forehead and say, “Sorry, I hadn’t realised that is what you meant by good design. Now I understand what you want and I will mend my ways!”

We are therefore left asking what the document is for? Hearts and minds have been won and yet the sad truth is that these principles are more often ignored than they are implemented.

The question is one of teeth. Where persuasion ends compulsion must begin. In a couple of places the new guidance quotes paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework which is the one that says development should be refused if it is badly designed. So presumably this guidance will be used to define what is meant by good and bad design?

When writing the Hulme guide we had a lot of debates over language. All of the rules in the Hulme guide use the word “should” – as in, “There should be a clear definition between public and private space”. This was slightly less powerful than words like “must” or “will”, but a lot stronger than “may”, “should consider” or “might like to think about that when you have a moment”. OK, I made the last one up. This is a good test of design guidance: look at how many weasel words it contains to water down the meaning and pull its teeth.

>> Also read: Lukewarm welcome for national design guide – that doesn’t mention architects

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The National Design Guide is written in a strangely passive language. Every principle is framed as a neutral statement such as, “Built form defines a pattern of streets and development blocks”. One assumes that this is a good thing but it doesn’t actually say so.

It’s hard to see how such statements could ever be used to refuse a scheme under para 130. The nearest it comes to an assertive statement is para 124 which says that, “Where a need is identified local plans may adopt Nationally Described Space Standards and those for accessibility and water” (weasel words in italics). It also begs the question of in which parts of the country will there not be a need for space standards, accessibility and water?

The teeth it seems will come later and part three of the new guidance promises a National Model Design Code following the publication of the Building Beautiful Commission. This is to be used as a template for local authorities to prepare their own codes.

Three of the four examples of what this might include do indeed use the word “should”, as in, “New development should utilise a pattern of clear fronts and backs”, even if this is still not quite as clear as the Hulme version, “All buildings should face on to streets”.

Nevertheless, as I have argued in this column before, the UK planning system needs to transition towards a more code-based approach similar to that used in the Netherlands. Maybe the model design code will move us in this direction?