Writing exclusively for Building Design, David Rudlin, who worked on the new national model design code, argues it will give ammunition to planners

David Rudlin_index

I remember a meeting back in the early 1990s with Mr Robinson from the highways department in Manchester. We were discussing the highway implications of the Hulme Guide to Development that my friend Charlie Baker and I had been commissioned to write. Mr Robinson was not happy. In his eyes two local residents – because that is what we were; Charlie was doing this through the Hulme Community Architecture Project – had been given rein to mess with his roads and to promote irresponsible ideas like crossroads! (This was long before Manual for Streets.)

Under intense political pressure he eventually conceded the point in Hulme and was famously quoted as saying, “Heaven forbid that this is ever applied to the rest of the city”. Which of course is exactly what happened a year later.

Mr Robinson was right in one respect: a code for a development site, even one as big as Hulme, is very different to a code for a whole city. This distinction had lain behind many of the discussions that we have been having over the last six months co-curating the National Model Design Code with MHCLG.

Most of the best design codes in the UK have been drawn up for sites. Typically a masterplan is developed and the code regulates how the plan should be built out. Sometimes it is implemented through an outline planning consent, but the effective ones tend to be imposed by the landowner. As I wrote in my book Climax City these types of code-based masterplans have a very long history.

Those of us who produce these site-based codes agree that they need to be specific, measurable, verifiable and, where possible, their rules should be numeric or have “yes/no” answers. The disagreement, in as much as it exists, is over the level of detail. There is one school of thought that seeks to control everything down to the elevational treatments allowable on each street. The other school, which I tend to subscribe to, is that codes should contain rather fewer rules but that these should create a fixed frame into which development can take place without controlling the detail.

Some might say that discretionary is the better part of valour

The design codes that have been developed by local authorities for existing urban areas tend to be very different and in truth most of them are design guides rather than codes. They contain aspirations and guidance and their language tends towards the “should seek to” rather than the “should” or “will”. Because they need to deal with so many different urban conditions they are not able to be as specific and, while they are very valuable in giving weight to good design, their impact is less certain.

The national model design code (which of course is not a code at all but a guide to writing codes) seeks to bridge this gap. It adapts the structures and techniques of a site-based code for application across a wider area. In a site-based code the masterplan sets out a hierarchy of streets and establishes a series of character areas. The rules for any particular plot depend on which type of street it is on, and which character area it sits within.

In the national model design code we use the term “area type” rather than “character area” but the approach is essentially the same. The areas covered by a code (which may not be the whole district) are allocated to one of a number of area types, and the existing street hierarchy is mapped. For new sites the area types and street hierarchy are determined through a masterplanning exercise. Once established the area types and street hierarchy will mean that the rules and guidance applicable to each plot will be crystal clear.

That, at least, is the theory. The practice is likely to be more complicated as I’m sure we will find out once MHCLG finds local authorities to pilot the code. There will be places where the existing character is so diverse that it will be difficult to establish area types. There will be other places where local circumstances demand exceptions to the rules. Most important, under our discretionary planning system we don’t really have “rules”, as such. Planners in the UK do not have the powers to get developers to follow the rules as they would have no choice but to do in the French planning system, for example.

Some might say that discretionary is the better part of valour, and that the negotiated nature of the British planning system is one of its strengths. The approach to coding that we have suggested accepts this. We may not be able to impose codes in the way that other systems do but we can give ammunition to planners in their negotiations and mandate a much more design-led approach.

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