This pilot case study sought to explore the process and outcomes of developing a design code for a new suburban housing development for a large allocated site. The process involved developing a clear and considered engagement strategy, and education and training on design codes for development managers, council members, developers, and the community. Key themes included the challenges of engagement in a low response community, the use of a regulating plan in lieu of a masterplan to enable the development of the code, and the selection of appropriate design parameters to raise design quality in this area with lower land values.
Scale: Site specific
Focus: New low density suburban development - learning lessons about raising design quality using a design code
Project team: Nuneaton & Bedworth Borough Council, PRP
Region: West Midlands
Largely urban in character, the Borough has two market towns – Nuneaton and Bedworth – which are now surrounded by large areas of suburban housing. In the past, residential development has not always been well-designed and has failed to positively contribute to the character of the area and to local distinctiveness. In recent years, design quality has improved, however the majority of housing has been delivered by major housebuilders seeking to maximise density on site and to use standard house
types where possible. With relatively low land values and often significant s106 payments to go towards infrastructure requirements (education, transport, leisure, open space etc) viability is often cited as a reason not to deliver a higher quality design.
The Council’s Local Plan – the Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Plan (Local Plan) (2011-2031) - was adopted in 2019. The plan allocates sufficient land to deliver 14,060 dwellings over the plan period. Of the 14,060 dwellings total, 4,020 dwellings were accommodated as ‘overspill’ from the Coventry City area. Eight strategic housing sites were allocated in the adopted Local Plan, which required removal from the green belt to deliver the housing need.
The focus for the design code is the HSG2 Arbury site which has a housing target of 1,525 homes, alongside provision of a local centre, primary school, community uses, and significant open space. The Borough is testing the use of design codes in order to improve the quality and character of future development across the local authority area. The Borough, therefore, aspires to use the final output from this pilot programme as a guidance document for developers who will bring forward applications on sites in the future.
In the past, residential development has not always been well-designed and has failed to positively contribute to the character of the area and to local distinctiveness. In recent years, design quality has improved, although the majority of housing is being delivered by major housebuilders seeking to maximise density on site and to use standard house types where possible. With relatively low land values and often significant s106 payments to go towards infrastructure requirements (education, transport, leisure, open space) viability is often cited as a reason not to deliver a higher quality design.
With this design code pilot, there is an opportunity to produce and test a design code, either at Borough level, or for a specific allocation site. For the former, this would help to provide a comprehensive framework for any speculative planning applications that may come forward in the future and give comfort to local communities that the highest possible standards of design can be required and/or delivered.
The final decision was made to focus on a specific allocation - the Arbury site, with a masterplan which would include a focus on landscape strategy, open space provision, homes and other uses, access and connection to the wider street network with primary and secondary streets, and the location of the local centre. The area types would apply to different parts of the site, which would in turn reference rules on density, height, and street building line. A design code was seen as a key planning tool which would specify clearly the design requirements for the site.
"Poor design is a persistent issue within the borough so there has been increased interest in the ideas of better place making and raising the quality of design in the built environment generally. A design code would be a tool that the local authority hopes could help them see an improvement in design standards."
Consultants PRP were commissioned to produce the design code and undertake the engagement as the local authority did not have the resources or the time to do this in-house. Although the area types were not used directly in the design code, a coding plan that mapped existing area types within the borough was produced which proved useful for both the council and in community consultations.
In producing the design code, there were two main challenges:
1. Illustrative concept framework plan - There was only a schematic masterplan (also referred to as a concept plan) for the site in an SPD so there was no actual design in relation to the road layout, or the location of dwellings and open space to respond to in the code. Also, in the absence of an outline application for the site, which would have provided detailed baseline information and proposals, an ‘illustrative concept framework’ plan was developed to help inform the coding (later included in an appendix to the code).
The aim was to give some sense of the requirements for the site without prescribing the layout of roads and location of open spaces for which there could be a number of design solutions. This would then allow developers to creatively prepare their design proposals for the site. This plan was included in the Site Analysis and Testing Report, September 2021, which accompanied the design code. The use of an illustrative concept framework plan was seen as an acceptable solution, which also saved on time and resources.
2. Community engagement - Community engagement was challenging as there was a low response, despite the use of both online and face-to-face events. This affected the ability to find out from the community what was locally popular. The consultants developed event boards for both the virtual and in-person consultations and some feedback was obtained although this was not from a wide cross-section of the community.
The Arbury design code incorporates some of the 10 characteristics of a well-designed place, which are identified in the NMDC, combining them into four main chapters: Open Space and Nature, Movement and Connectivity, Built Form, and Character Narrative. In each of the thematic chapters, the mandatory coding principles are set out in solid-coloured boxes, while advisory coding principles are indicated in grey.
There is more detail in sections such as Open Space and Nature where the code also builds on existing policies. In other areas such as building heights, the coding principles are dealt with at higher level. The element of Identity is relevant across the main chapters, especially Open Space and Nature, and Built Form, so it is dealt with in each section.
The pages contain text, illustrative or reference images, and drawings, arranged in a clear format to assist in understanding the code. There is also a checklist at the end, for use by development managers and other stakeholders.
The engagement process: time and resources - Throughout the testing period it was noted that the time and resources required to plan, prepare and execute the engagement events were significant, especially in relation to the public consultation events and schools’ programme. In future a project website – or alternative event promotion tool - should be developed at the earliest possible stage in order to ensure maximum exposure, attendance and input from the community.
A lesson to be learned at this stage is to have a clear engagement strategy and engage with the community and key stakeholders such as landowners at the earliest possible opportunity. In addition, some of the deliverables within the project can be dependent on completion of other aspects of the pilot process; for example, the vision and masterplan elements of the project can only be finalised following feedback from the early engagement.
Designing the code to suit the area - A lesson learned for the future would be to determine the nature and level of the final outputs at an earlier stage to streamline deliverables and workstreams. It was first anticipated that the final output would be a complete draft Design Code; however, due to timescales and practicalities, the final output was an emerging document that would be subject to further amendments. There was also the issue of tailoring the design code requirements to the nature of the area acknowledging that some design aspirations would not be deliverable in this lower value area. The emerging codes were viability tested as they developed and might be further refined once developer inputs are received.
Political support - Having councillors on board as early as possible can provide a valuable conduit to the local community by promoting the engagement events and keeping them up to date on the project which complements what the project team are already doing.
Area types worksheet - This was not used to form a coding plan as per section 2B of the NMDC. Nonetheless the area types worksheet was completed and used to inform sections of the design code including built form and character narrative. The exercise also helped develop a greater understanding of the site in the context of the wider area and could be used to inform other sites across the borough in the future.
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.
Getting the engagement strategy right
The engagement process proved challenging, limiting the ability to determine what was popular locally to inform the design code. The focus of engagement has been very much on the site - the nature of the site and the green belt release, but, actually we didn’t need that specific focus for the consultation. We could have taken a more general local area perspective for the consultation as a starting point. Obviously, we were trying to be transparent about the process but we could have consulted on what people see as beautiful in the area without having reference to the specific site at that stage. Therefore; it is very important to consider the consultation strategy at the outset We put a lot of resources and energy into the consultation events but the focus got slightly shifted away from what we were trying to achieve.
A masterplan is not essential at the start
The illustrative concept framework plan represents one way in which the principles within the design code could be set out spatially so that initially a comprehensive masterplan may not be needed. This approach enables the code to be less prescriptive and outlines the requirement for developers to undertake detailed analysis and masterplanning work in the future. An observation on this part of the NMDC is that the preparation of a masterplan at the start should be considered optional and is subject to the appropriateness of the site/area being coded.
Preparing a design code for a site in a lower value area - being flexible
There were challenges in preparing a design code for a new development in an area where viability would be a significant issue due to lower land values. The aspirations of the community with regard to design has to be balanced against what the developer can realistically provide in terms of design quality. The design code therefore has to be flexible, with the requirements in the code being organised under ‘must haves’ and ‘should haves’ that leave room for negotiation.
Gearing up to code
To prepare to code, three key issues need to be addressed: resourcing, working with members and engaging the public. From a staffing point of view, the local authority is not currently equipped to do coding and could not do it again without funding. Members need to be brought along with the drive for better quality development and that means convincing local communities of the benefits of more housing. There is also a job of work to be done thinking through how the public can be engaged in such processes, and explaining the benefits of coding.
Raising the bar early
The principle of coding on an allocation site is not done commonly, as typically there is already an outline planning application to set parameters before a design code is prepared to guide reserved matters applications. So this has been an unusual challenge - raising the bar on design quality before a developer prepares a planning application is something that is really interesting through this process.