This pilot case study sought to explore the process and outcomes of developing a design code for one of Hyndburn’s garden village developments - Huncoat Garden Village (HGV). The aim was to improve the design quality of the proposed development using a detailed design code which would be prepared by external consultants for the local authority. Key themes included simplification of the code for ease of use making it accessible to all stakeholders, viability testing of the draft design code, and development and use of a range of consultation and engagement techniques to seek the community’s preferences on design.
Scale: Site specific
Focus: Production of a design code for a major garden village development - Huncoat Garden Village
Project team: Hyndburn Borough Council, Arcadis
Region: North West
- Local Authority background information
Hyndburn is a Borough where 55% of the housing stock comprises pre-1919 terraces and where good quality family homes are needed to rebalance the housing market.
Located between Blackburn and Burnley, Hyndburn is situated at the heart of “Pennine” Lancashire. From the time of the industrial revolution, the towns of Accrington, Great Harwood and Rishton have developed a rich history and distinct character which can significantly influence the content and development of a strong Design Code.
"Hyndburn should be a distinctive, prosperous and vibrant area of Pennine Lancashire, recognised for
the collective quality and attractiveness of its market towns and landscape setting…. High quality homes will be developed to provide a more balanced housing market comprising traditional and modern house types constructed using sustainable principles."
Hyndburn Core Strategy, extract from Vision
- The context for coding
Until recently the township of Huncoat was over-shadowed by the cooling towers of the now demolished power station. Many local residents would have worked at the adjacent colliery that has also now become overgrown. Both sites have been identified as strategic development opportunities and form an integral part of the Garden Village proposals by the council.
Huncoat is a small village steeped in a rich agricultural and industrial history. It was proposed to test aspects of the NMDC process on HGV, which lies to the east of Accrington. This is a strategic growth area identified in the emerging Local Plan and Masterplan where new development will be designed to integrate with the existing community, bringing about transformational, long term change.
Huncoat is a distinctive settlement but acts as an outer suburb/peripheral village to the larger town.
The ambitious vision for HGV benefits from being set in an existing strategic plan and is supported by developing policy. A Masterplan and Delivery Strategy was published in 2021 and sets out the framework for a detailed design code, with major landowners and developers already gearing up to start delivering the masterplan. Testing the National Model Design Code (NMDC) on Huncoat Garden Village would add value to the quality of the scheme, making it more attractive to developers, while helping to increase sales values.
An assessment of viability is being undertaken at the same time as the masterplan that considers all the costs associated with the delivery of infrastructure and this will also consider the costs associated with the delivery of good quality design as expressed through the National Model Design Code.
- Why code?
The design code will set high-quality and viable design standards for the HGV development by focusing on key principles first, and then detailed design.
The design coding process will involve collaborative planning and design by involving the community throughout the process, and this will help Hyndburn Borough Council (HBC) learn lessons on the most appropriate approach to take for community engagement on design. Additionally, viability in areas like Hyndburn is often used as a reason for poor quality outcomes – a design code will help to enshrine higher standards across the Borough.
The Borough is therefore in an ideal position to take benefit from of the NMDC testing programme for a number of reasons:
• The test-bed area of HGV has already been identified and actual development proposals are due to come forward which provide an opportunity for the real application of a design code;
• It provides an opportunity to test a design code for a Garden Village proposal in East Lancashire, which has historically suffered from high levels of deprivation and which is striving to improve its economic prospects and increase the amount of high quality housing stock;
• The area is subject to a masterplan and a large amount of baseline information gathering with detailed analysis has already been produced, both of which will inform a design code;
• The masterplan work means that there is a fully established engagement framework already in place with the local community and landowners/developers;
• The timing of the emerging Local Plan means the council is in a position to be able to take advantage of lessons learned from the design code work. This will be an early example of a plan which fully embraces the Government’s priority to achieve high quality design and create beautiful places through the planning system.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes clear that the use of visual tools such as the NMDC will set design expectations early on in the planning and design process, reflecting the local character and aspirations of the community. A design code for HGV will be a valuable tool that sets out the rules for creating a high quality environment for landowners, developers, stakeholders and consultants. The design code will provide a single point of reference, as a material consideration in planning decision-making that translates the local authority’s design quality objectives and policies into specific and tailored design parameters to guide and enforce the future development of sites such as HGV.
"The question was asked right from the outset: how does the council ensure [design] quality .... the design code
route would be a really useful process ... to ensure the standards of design in terms of both the homes to be
built and the street scenes and green spaces"
- What was the coding process?
An innovative aspect of the coding process was the development and use of a digital app, Irys, for community engagement. However, the app ran into data protection issues so an online website and engagement platform was developed and used along with traditional face-to-face events such as walking audits with the Huncoat Forum, landowners, and other stakeholders in the local community.
In developing the Huncoat Design Code, there was an aspiration to simplify aspects of the NMDC guidance. Consequently, the ten characteristics of a well-designed place within the NMDC were assigned to three themes created to highlight the key topics - Huncoat House, Huncoat Open Space, and Huncoat Street. However, the final design code, in attempting to follow the format and guidance set within the NMDC, is a complex document that is technically detailed and thus not as easy to use as the council would have liked. There will be ongoing work to simplify the code so that development managers will find it easier to use; this will also enable the local community to better appreciate the way in which it will help to raise design standards for new developments in the area.
Viability testing was done on the draft HGV design code to test the potential costs of the ‘should have’ over and above the ‘must haves’. A preliminary estimate showed a small increase in overall costs (less than 10% on those aspects impacted) but for a significant increase in design quality. Viability testing was seen as an important aspect of the code, and an area where collaboration and negotiations with developers would be a key aspect of collective efforts to raise design standards in an area of low land values.
- What form will the code take?
The final draft design code follows the format and elements of the NMDC closely, with the ten characteristics assigned to one of three themes. It also contains a substantial level of detail.
The code includes a coding plan rather than a detailed masterplan, developed specifically for the code and based on the principles set out in the council’s emerging masterplan for the site.
Character areas were also developed rather than area types as more character areas could be identified - six character areas as opposed to two or three area types - resulting in greater diversity across the site. The design code contains mandatory ‘must haves’ and expected (advisory) ‘should haves’ - elements to define what is required from developers.
- Lessons learned
Wider range of communication methods needed during consultations, especially non-digital – With regard to digital engagement and community access, across Hyndburn there are pockets of the community who do not have easy access to the internet and this was an issue raised during previous consultations on the masterplan. This meant that consultation on the design code should not rely solely on an online platform. Events including exhibitions and walkabouts were useful, but the constraints of the pandemic made this challenging.
"It was definitely challenging because there was a section of the community who were not very tech savvy and they probably don’t have access to the internet or they have access but they are not very proficient at using it. So that was a concern that a better engagement strategy should be put in place"
Education and training for all stakeholders on design codes – It is important to appreciate how communities can actually shape the places they will live in and how they communicate their thoughts on design. The community and in fact all stakeholders need to be brought along the journey to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of a range of built environment aspects so that they can engage more fully with planning tools such as design codes.
A process to engage people that do not have the knowledge to interpret the code – The language used in consultation is important – there is a translation element in this type of engagement. With ongoing consultation that includes building capacity related to design in the built environment, it is hoped that the community will become better informed and this will help raise the quality of feedback on what is locally popular.
Being clear about aspirations, goals and expectations – The council needed to be clear about their aspirations, goals and expectations for the design code from the outset, by doing work beforehand, and consulting internally to make these decisions. For example, different departments in the council such as planning or housing take a different perspective on design codes and this needed to be explored in greater detail so that the design code could reflect these different priorities.
- In their words
As part of the NMDC pilot project research, interviews were undertaken with key stakeholders involved in each of the pilots. This section summarises some of those reflections.
Viability testing the draft design code
Acknowledging the viability aspect of new development in relation to the council’s aspirations for higher design quality is a real challenge and the lesson throughout this design coding process is that there is a need to focus on the bottom line and really prioritise those design requirements that are absolutely essential There may be aspects of design that cannot be realised in an area like Hyndburn in that it is difficult to get higher values for properties even though they are really well designed.
From the outset, we wanted to have an open and honest dialogue with developers about their standard products. Additionally, because this is a garden village development and it is aspirational, the quality of design needs to be part of this conversation. However; we also recognised the challenges for development in terms of two brownfield sites with a lot of ground contamination, exacerbating the issues of low land values around Hyndburn.
Range of engagement techniques for community consultations
There were a range of both digital and in-person stakeholder engagements used during the pilot process aligning with the NMDC guidance. Initially the use of a community engagement app, IRYS, was explored to gain feedback on community preferences on design, then a community website took over which also provided information on design codes. Covid restrictions permitting, walkabouts and in-person exhibitions and events were held to continue the conversation on good design and positive placemaking. This must be an ongoing process of learning, training, and conversations about what constitutes good design and what design elements are popular locally.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
The design code should target issues that are not clearly covered in other guidance. One of the significant challenges has been trying to work out whether a lot of the guidance for the coding is covered elsewhere and perhaps it does not need to be repeated in the code. But then as a standalone document, the code might look like there are gaps in it. This means that there needs to be clear references in the design code to this other guidance.
Something that is set in stone
With references to design coding introduced in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), it is something that developers can’t really ignore. That is what we want - something that is set in stone so it is part of national and local policy, and something that cannot be challenged by developers.