Councils that overuse their new design muscle risk strangling housing delivery, by Joey Gardiner

Goldsmith Street in Norwich, the 105-home council housing development which won last month's Stirling Prize for architecture, was undoubtedly a timely victor.

The project, with homes set out in a traditional terraced pattern, adheres to many – if not all – of the principles contained in the government’s national design guide published just a week before the prize was awarded.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick says the guide, coupled with a promised national design code, will make it easier for authorities to push back against poorly designed schemes. The government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (which is due to report before the end of the year, although whether the General Election delays or accelerates that remains to be seen), is also pushing design up the agenda.

Beefed-up national policy is giving local authorities more leverage in their discussions. But to be successful, it will need to improve the designs being submitted by landowners, developers and housebuilders in the first place.

It might. Combined with the revised National Planning Policy Framework’s emphasis on design quality, the guide gives authorities a powerful tool, should they be inclined to pick it up. And by helping officers to have a more informed design conversation and better articulate what they want from applicants, it may ensure more plans are submitted right first time. At the very least, developers will start wording their design and access statements to demonstrate how schemes fulfil the guide’s ten key criteria.

Nevertheless, many housebuilders think this guide alone is likely to make little if any difference. Why? Firstly, it is hardly revolutionary, according with the principles of the housebuilder-endorsed Building for Life metric, which many of the better developers already use. That may be fine, but the new guide's wording is often vague, so while it has planning weight, in any specific disagreement with an authority there is enough room to – in the words of one developer - "drive a coach and horses through it."

More fundamentally, few developers believe the tag of "poor design" applies to them. So as much as you or I may differ, they are unlikely to look to the guide for help. But they may think they can make use of it to put pressure on local authorities, who can also be a blockage to good urban design. Highways departments often impose standard road layouts where designers are trying to be more innovative, or refuse to adopt the "tree-lined streets" so lionised by Jenrick due to high maintenance costs. Goldsmith Sreet, for example, only took its ultimate form after the council agreed to waive its normal stipulations and permit narrower streets.

But, even if developers can brush off the design guide, the proposed national design code could make a big difference, and hence is being viewed by them with some suspicion. It is hard to see what a national design code might contain, given the apparent contradiction of the idea with the design guide’s stress on local context and identity. Developers fear specific detailing in a national design code might contradict housebuilders’ existing house types. Or that individual local authorities could create bespoke local codes that would require a different response in every different authority. Make the code too prescriptive, and builders of standard house types might suddenly struggle to get a planning permission.

If we want a return to urban forms – such as Goldsmith Street’s terraces – which have proven to be successful, durable and versatile over centuries, local authorities will have to be smart enough to encourage better practice without cutting off supply.

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