The National Model Design Code

Do we really need this?

We are currently preparing a number of mixed use strategic masterplans and outline planning applications for residential developments. In every case the National Model Design Code (NMDC – planners do love an acronym) is thrust at us by the local authorities who will or will not grant us our planning permissions. Our projects are in different Counties and with different Local Authorities. Each County has its own Design Guidance, each Local Authority has its own policies and supplementary design guidance. All of them require us to ‘follow their guidance’ and to show how our designs follow the principles of ‘Building for a Healthier Life (BFHL)’, ‘CABE Best Practice’, ‘Manual for Streets’, ‘The Urban Design Compendium’, their own ‘Design Charter’, their own ‘Design Guide’, … the list goes on and on and on. Then there are all the additional and sometimes contradictory highway design guides and the cycle and parking best practice guides and the truck loads of other guides and best practice notes as well as National Space Standards and The Building Regulations.

Now we also have ‘The National Design Guide’, ‘Guidance notes for Design Codes’ and ‘The NMDC’. In addition to the plethora of design guidance that we have to show we have followed, we are now finding that many under-resourced local authorities are requiring us to present our designs – even outline planning applications – to Design Quality Review Panels. These panels charge our clients for their time and for the benefit of their ‘advice’. So far their advice to us has been ‘have a look at Great Kneighton in Cambridge and Beaulieu in Chelmsford‘ and ‘show us how you have followed the NMDC and BFHL’. The National Design Guide and Building for a Healthier Life are full of photographs of both Great Knighton and Beaulieu Park. They have won multiple design awards and are nationally recognised as examples of good design.

What I really do like about the National Design Guide is the way it requires designers to set out the story of the design:

Well-designed places and buildings come about when there is a clearly expressed ‘story’ for the design concept and how it has evolved into a design proposal. This explains how the concept influences the layout, form, appearance and details of the proposed development. It may draw its inspiration from the site, its surroundings or a wider context. It may also introduce new approaches to contrast with, or complement, its context. This ‘story’ will inform and address all ten characteristics. It is set out in a Design and Access Statement that accompanies a planning application.’

The National Model Design Code also looks good. It is clear and well produced but it will not guaranteed good quality design. Maybe that was never the intended purpose. However, I have seen it being used as tool (maybe even a short cut) that Local Authorities believe will deliver good design if followed. It will not. Good designers will deliver good design. We had exactly this discussion with Cambridge City Council in 2010 when producing the Great Kneighton (then called Clay Farm) Design Code. The reason it and Beaulieu are heralded as successful designs is because good architects were employed to produce the detailed designs of the housing parcels and good landscape architects were employed to design the parks and open spaces. They were able to work within well thought out masterplan frameworks which included landscape and open space hierarchies, public realm, character areas, urban blocks, surface water drainage and attenuation, storey heights, density, roads, streets, parking, play areas and public art. The urban blocks were designed in detail to test unit numbers, mix and density, even at the early strategic masterplanning stage. Everything was worked out so that later, when the buildings were designed for the Reserved Matters planning applications, they were done so within set parameters. This is the only way to ensure delivery of a vision set out in a masterplan.

There is no short cut.

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