Careers Advice: Applying the new national design guide

Written by: Dr Laura Alvarez
Published on: 21 Oct 2019

Goldsmith Street (pic: London Road, Flickr)

The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government recently launched the National Design Guide, a document welcomed by many in all sectors of the construction industry. But despite some positive reviews, the release managed to generate more questions than answers: What is the weight of national guidance? How can local authorities build on it? How can design quality be enforced through planning? What skills and resources are necessary to make this meaningful at a local level? How is this going to help communities with a place-based interest? What is beauty? And the list goes on and on. 

Perhaps the most surprising component of the document is the emphasis on three strands that deliver good design: the role of nature, the opposition to car dominance and the value of communities and their voice. 

Substantial evidence suggests that addressing those issues could be the most straightforward path towards achieving sustainable development. What’s more, the main obstacles designers and planners face in practice to deliver are very clear: current models for place-care and maintenance; highways supremacy; and a top-down planning system. So how can local authorities start removing those barriers? 

To build on the positive message of national guidance, local authorities should develop and adopt radical, innovative tools. Supplementary planning documents, site-specific codes and design reviews can help strengthen the case, but these alone will not suffice. High-level design criteria allows too much flexibility and often lacks teeth, leaving the delivery processes to take over. When officers have to deal with issues such as maintenance costs and reduced budgets, compliance often becomes diluted and unsurprisingly, the three strands remain unaddressed. 

Local strategies or systems that secure design quality must go to the root of each problem in detail. This involves appraising, auditing and documenting outcomes, processes and powers in a systematic way and across departments and agencies. The evidence gathered then becomes a manual of lessons learnt. Through appropriate collaboration, teams can then focus on implementing specific changes that will lead to significant gains; for example finding new working methods and ways to adopt tools like Manual for Streets, Building for Life and so on. Above all, the main message to planners is that removing one barrier often offers solutions to addressing all three strands simultaneously. This requires a new form of planning that forgets the black and white cause-consequence model and adopts a more complex whole-system approach.

On the subject of ‘Beauty’, the subheading “Planning practice guidance for beautiful, enduring and successful places” is based on the Vitruvius definition of ‘good design’ (fit for purpose; durable; brings delight). A definition that will always be valid and applicable to all aspects of design as long as the three criteria are properly redefined. Being ‘fit for purpose’ clearly has a different meaning than in 40 BC. The concept of ‘durable’ also changed across historic periods as the lifespan of comparable uses has dramatically shortened. The biggest problem remains defining ‘delight’, which according to the Cambridge Dictionary means ‘something that gives great pleasure, satisfaction, or happiness’. But as we have not yet agreed how to measure ‘happiness’ we can only anticipate that this healthy debate will continue for some time. 

The National Design Guide is there setting out clear priorities, making substantial claims and promoting strong values that can deliver sustainable development. This is the sanction planners needed to take action, but it is only with strong local leadership that beautiful, enduring and successful places will be built. Perhaps the main message of the National Design Guide is that planning is no longer about following the rule, but it is now about making the rules and putting in place a system for applying these rules. 

Dr Laura Alvarez is senior principal urban design and conservation officer at Nottingham City Council

Picture shows the Stirling Prize winning Goldsmith Street scheme in Norwich (credit: London Road, Flickr).