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The National Design Guide is a dog’s dinner

Paul Finch

The Ministry of Housing’s latest document combines platitudes with passing responsibility to overstretched local planners, says Paul Finch

Albeit with reservations about how a design guide fits with an extension of permitted development rights, architects have given a welcome to the National Design Guide launched last week by the Ministry of Housing. 

That welcome is probably because it is a motherhood and apple pie production, combining bits of ‘By Design’, ‘Place’ policies and guidance from yesteryear and multiple CABE documents. It tries to shoehorn in unconvincing references to ‘beauty’ and the albatross that is the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. 

A wordy introduction finally gets to the purpose of the guide by claiming that we can ‘recognize well-designed places by outlining and illustrating the government’s priorities for well-designed places’. How very brilliant. It does this by identifying 10 characteristics of such places, based on national planning policy, practice guidance and ‘objective for good design as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework’.

There is no acknowledgement that places we admire are often the result of what at the time were radical departures from the familiar

Somehow all this avoids ‘specific, detailed and measurable criteria for good design’, which you might think is a bit of a failure for a national design guide – but don’t worry, all that stuff is ‘most appropriately set out at the local level’. Why? Is there a glut of planners with both design credentials and time on their hands to draw up policies that are more than cut-and-paste from elsewhere? Anyway, says the national guide, it is back to local authority design guides, design guidance, or ‘design codes prepared by applicants to accompany planning applications’. 

No doubt those applicants will bear in mind important ministry observations that ‘a place is more complex and multifaceted than a building’ and that ‘most places evolve over a long period of time’. Who would have guessed?

Perhaps a forthcoming document, the National Model Design Code, incorporating the beauty commission’s end-of-year findings, will provide further wisdom, supplementing helpful definitions in this guide that tell us what ‘appearance’ means and what ‘materials’ are. No doubt Janet and John will absorb these concepts as they set about designing an urban ‘place’, full of what the guide describes as ‘homes and buildings’ that are ‘functional, healthy and sustainable’.

Page from design guide

Page from design guide

Illustration from the National Design Guide

The problem is, virtually all the illustrations are of housing schemes. There is virtually nothing about offices, shops, schools, hospitals, surgeries, religious buildings and so on. Only one contemporary tall building is illustrated – because it is clad in brick. There is nothing about height, density or innovation. Modernity is not mentioned. There is nothing about the fact that areas and places we admire are often the result of what at the time were radical departures from what was familiar.

In fact, what the National Design Guide will do is to give further ammunition to the development control tendency in UK planning practice, with a coded set of tick-boxes, any one of which could be used to stop a scheme displaying vitality and inspiration dead in its tracks. Perhaps because it realises this, the ministry is extending permitted development rights, pretending that two-storey extensions on certain existing buildings don’t count in terms of ‘appearance’, ‘context’, ‘built form’ or ‘identity’ – four of the 10 characteristics the guide says are so important in contributing to a sense of place.

Extensions of permitted development might encourage new design, but there is no guarantee. Supposing it is terrible? Alas the provisions of Paragraph 130 of the National Planning Policy Framework will no longer apply; you know, the one that says, with refreshing bluntness, that ‘permission should be refused for development of poor design’. 

Unfortunately, even though it has some familiar nourishing morsels, the National Design Guide is a dog’s dinner.


Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    A far easier and cost effective solution to the poor quality of building design in the U.K. is to prevent unqualified (or under qualified) non professionals from designing them. Adding a greater workload into a planning system incapable of judging aesthetic (or often any other kind) quality is governmental lunacy. Especially when money has been spent needlessly.
    Insisting on tradItional Design THEN Build contracts would help :-)

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  • The illustration has a modern toss/outrage circa 1967 vibe to it, yeah?

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