Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council: A toolkit for canal-side coding

This pilot case study sought to explore the process and outcomes from developing a design coding toolkit for canal-side regeneration in Bootle. The focus on the canal area developed out of its importance as a community resource during the pandemic when it was reconfirmed as a valuable placemaking asset. Its suitability for the design code work also stems from the fact that the canal runs through the town incorporating various area types - inner urban centre, transition zones and the outer urban/suburban zone. The key themes in the pilot work included developing a transferable and practical coding toolkit to drive area-wide change; using a strong and effective visual presentation to highlight the code requirements; and addressing the influence of viability on the design code requirements.




Scale: Area based
Context: Urban
Focus: applying a design code to the urban regeneration of Bootle’s canal-side corridor
Project team: Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council, Hyas Associates, Optimised Environments (OPEN), BE Group
Region: North West

Local Authority background information

Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council comprises five main settlement areas and is a borough of contrasts. In the south, Bootle, Litherland, Seaforth and Netherton share the metropolitan character of Liverpool. The built-up areas comprise about half of the area of the Borough and are where 95% of Sefton’s residents live. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal passes through Bootle before continuing to Liverpool. It is already very well used for recreation by local communities. The canal offers great potential to be used more intensively for tourism and ecology. In recent years Bootle has seen a number of regeneration schemes with modern homes being built on former industrial areas and on former residential sites.

The context for coding

Bootle Town Centre is the largest economic, administrative and commercial centre in Sefton, providing central services in terms of jobs, shopping and administration for nearly 100,000 people. The centre is host to major public sector agencies including the Council, the Inland Revenue and the Health and Safety Executive.

There is a commitment to the comprehensive regeneration of Bootle Town Centre in the emerging Bootle Area Action Plan (AAP) – a transformational opportunity for the whole area. With the fragmented nature of the area and connectivity challenges, there is the potential to stitch the various parts of the urban environment together through the AAP and associated design codes. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal passes through the centre of the AAP with a range of key regeneration sites immediately adjacent to it.

"The existing character of the Leeds- Liverpool canal is recognised as both a
weakness and potential future opportunity by all stakeholders"

Why code?

The Council are undertaking a Bootle Area Action Plan to address the present and future challenges of Bootle and its
hinterland, which is a deprived area. The Council saw a good opportunity to use design coding to factor design quality
into their regeneration work, believing that that better design will improve viability and create a more sustainable place in the long run. They also aim to raise civic pride in the area with a new emphasis on high design aspirations that will enhance urban character - recent development had tended to suburbanise and dilute the local character. The planning policy team had started a text-based design SPD but the launch of the new highly-visual NMDC prompted a change of thinking and the new focus on design coding.

The following were the aims of the design code pilot:
• Communicate visually the Council’s aspirations for Bootle
• Promote design as a catalyst for better development, for investors and developers to see Bootle differently, potentially improving viability and long-term sustainability
• Encourage people to take pride in Bootle and be actively involved in its future
• Address the canal as a significant asset and characteristic of the area
• Provide a transferable and practical tool in the form of a design code for similar areas of deprivation
• Provide a draft design code that aligns with and informs the emerging Area Action Plan, to define and guide area wide, deliverable regeneration and transformation

• Use the ability of design codes to identify and drive forward environmental enhancements and public realm improvements, as a regeneration tool for complex urban environments
• Provide a programme of clear actions to ultimately develop detailed area guidance across Bootle (informed by the testing programme pilot) as drivers for area wide change and site-specific regeneration – that can be developed further as part of the ongoing AAP process
• Nurture an enthused and engaged community, actively involved in informing the future of their area.

"The Council thought there was a good opportunity to use a design code to bring design forward for this
work. They feel very strongly that design could be a catalyst for better development rather than what had happened before    - that “any development is okay"

What was the coding process?

There were two key design code stages primarily being testing during Sefton’s pilot: the vision stage (design vision and coding plan) with engagement as well as the preparation of the code.

The original engagement strategy for the Bootle design code testing programme was designed to meet the constraints of the pandemic, with an initial focus on online engagement moving later towards in person sessions should the pandemic restrictions in place at the time allow. The original ambition of the design code pilot was to run alongside the emerging Bootle AAP process; however, this alignment proved to be challenging due to differing priorities and progress and so it was decided to move ahead independently with the pilot programme. Initially this involved:
• A canal walkaround by officers and the consultant team drawing out the extensive local knowledge of longer serving officers and their aspirations for Bootle
• Stakeholder conversations – Canals and Rivers Trust and the Police – which identified a clear synergy between their thinking and the emerging design guidance
• A public online survey using SurveyMonkey which worked well to elicit community views

Officers were pleased to see the community’s strong connection with the canal, perhaps boosted because of the pandemic. Previously the canal had been largely overlooked, but was apparently rediscovered under lockdown restrictions as one of the nearby places ‘permitted’ for outdoor exercise. Hence the consultation showed significant support for the canal to be better used and for character areas along the canal to be the focus of design guidance.

Vision - In response to consultation feedback, the team established a specific vision for the canal-side sites (as opposed to the whole Bootle AAP).

Coding Plan - Next the team developed a high-level coding plan which identifies the area types within Bootle, including
a new type focussed on the canal-side as a ‘corridor area’. These local area types will inform the AAP content.

Within the canal-side area, three distinct character areas were defined with design coding prepared for each, initially in the form of key principles, design concepts, and design scenarios. These were accordingly developed to provide ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘could’ guidance to guide developers. The council believe this will become a useful tool to promote dialogue between developers and the local planning team – and indeed a draft version is already being used to hold pre-app conversations.

What form will the code take?

Sefton’s testing programme was, by definition, exploratory, and in this spirit the resulting design code toolkit does not constitute a fully complete, ‘operational’ design code; rather, it contains materials that shows a potential approach to design coding in central Bootle. This includes illustrative visuals of coding principles applied to different canal-side sites that are quite different to how the Council has communicated its place-based intentions before.
This coding material sets out the high-level principles which must be taken into account by developers, establishes design concepts which should be adopted in new designs, and demonstrates design scenarios which show how the design code could be applied to a typical site along the canal. The regeneration proposals and design codes are detailed clearly in three sections that are visually distinct and well illustrated.
Within the design concepts section, illustrations are used to highlight how sites could be developed to promote key themes of movement, space and form to enhance the canal corridor.

Lessons learned

A speedy and targeted analysis – In accordance with the NMDC, the process began with an area analysis of the Bootle Town Centre and its environs. The analysis stage was speedy and targeted - getting to the key influences as quickly as possible. This resulted in a baseline analysis that gave a strong direction to establish the vision based on a strong understanding of the local circumstances and character.

A new area type for canals – The economic, viability and deliverability challenges and opportunities of many locations across the country, including Bootle, require even greater promotion of the value of good design and creative solutions. Dialogue with the Canals and Rivers Trust has already identified some synergies with their own proposals for a national approach to develop design codes for canal-side sites. The design code approach developed by Bootle for their canal-side sites could be useful for many similar northern towns or cities with canals. Ultimately, promoting the value of good design in areas such as Bootle has strong ‘levelling up’ benefits. There is also potential for a new national area type for linear infrastructure / movement corridors.

Addressing varied audiences – Deciding on the appropriate approach to communicate design coding was very important, and there is a need to allow adequate time and resources to get it right. The format and layout of the design code is not just about communicating to planners; the design code needs to be a tool that is accessible to developers and architects, as well as being accessible to council members, planning officers, stakeholders, and local residents.

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.

"It is one thing to generate the idea of what you want a code to say, but it is another skill entirely to communicate using
drawings that people will understand."

The Pilot process and its influence on the AAP
The coding material produced through the pilot programme will inform the AAP process. The Bootle Area Action Plan will include an overall design policy and a specific canalside sites policy that will take into account the design code pilot work undertaken. The AAP will identify sites for future coding while the wording of policies will draw upon the design principles that have been identified in the design code. To achieve this, the draft design code could be made available alongside a future Bootle AAP community engagement stage to illustrate how development might look on canal-side sites. In the meantime, the draft design code will help case officers provide advice on applications and pre applications in the area and the Council are already using the principles to provide advice on emerging schemes.

Learning from history
Five key area types were identified when developing a coding plan within the redline boundary area of the AAP: local centres, urban neighbourhoods, lower density ‘outer suburbs’, industrial areas, and movement corridors. This analysis enabled the team to quickly develop case studies for these area types that including an overview of local history, character and traditional green spaces. This highlighted that existing neighbourhoods of traditional terrace streets and Victorian villas were delivering significant densities, giving some comfort to the potential for higher density urban development in the area, including along the canal corridor.

Thoughts on viability
As the team progressed the design code pilot, viability testing looked at a range of variables, including density. In areas of low property value, increasing density through height may be counter- productive where the increase in new homes, and thus total development value, is exceeded by the increase in costs associated with building higher.
The testing of site options helped identify the optimum development density. Deliverability is key in a regeneration context and having property / viability advisors as part of the team has been invaluable. Greater time would have allowed for exploration of co-production with key landowners and developers on specific sites, however the testing programme timeframe was limited.