Interview: Ben Bolgar, advisor to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, on the challenges and opportunities of using design codes

The government’s Planning For The Future white paper sets out ambitions to make the use of “locally-produced design codes” a central part of plan-making.

Ben Bolgar, an advisor to the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which earlier this year recommended greater use of design codes in planning, speaks to Joey Gardiner about how councils and communities should make the most effective use of them.

Q: What is the reality of drawing up and working to design codes?

A: Writing design codes is a specific skill which involves writing specifications and standards and drawing general proportions.  This requires masterplanning, architectural, highways, landscape and construction skills combined with an understanding of commerciality.

If a national design code template is well written with a clear process of engagement, then there is no reason why planners can’t lead this process. That being said, planners would need to have specific skills in the aforementioned areas to be able to write them, meaning a major retraining programme would be required in order for this model to work.

Q: What are the challenges, benefits, potential snags, and resources required to make local codes work?

A: The biggest challenge is making sure that any precedent of urban space, streets, buildings and landscape elements are relevant to contemporary development practice so choosing vernacular designs where the crafts skills no longer exist is difficult.

Ideally, the precedent would come from periods of development where there was a degree of rapidity in the development process. The 19th and early 20th century is often a successful precedent of when cities were expanding rapidly but there was still a culture of pattern books and regional variation in materials and details.  Repetition of this precedent combined with a regional overlay could perhaps translate to volume building.

Q: What do codes need to include to ensure they make a real positive difference to the quality of place produced?

A: Form-based codes need to include town-wide regulations on movement networks, landscape, townscape and sustainability strategies, as one might expect in an outline application. In addition to this, they need a set of types for public thoroughfares, private frontages, building types and block types.  This needs to be combined with clear plans for both engagement and implementation.

Q: Is there a track record of design codes having been led by communities? 

A: There are some good examples where communities have had significant input into design codes – Nansledan, St. Albans, Bartons, Nottingham, Sherford and Faversham to name a few. I wouldn’t suggest local communities lead on design coding as a very specific professional skills set is required to do it properly. Having said that, there is no reason why a neighbourhood plan group couldn’t enlist the facilitation of the right skills to professionally prepare a local code.

Q: Is there any history of design codes being established to require designs that are ‘provably popular’ locally (something that the govt says it wants to ensure)? If so, how is this done and how easy is it to do?

A: It is relatively easy to engage communities in an exercise of choosing popular precedents and then translating them into pattern books and codes.  Nansledan in Newquay, Cornwall, is a good example of how the community had direct input into the process. The residents are very pleased with the new buildings which have been built as these conform to the code. The community recognises that they are in keeping with their context.

Q: How easy have authorities found it to enforce existing design codes with developers?

A: It depends on the individual development and how the codes are enforced. In Nansledan it has been easy because the landowner helps enforce the codes.

Q: What pressures do they come under to relax them, and what makes the difference between those that are and are not enforceable?

A: Codes are most likely to not be enforced when the sites concerned are major strategic sites that are needed to meet housing targets. Local authorities and local councillors are under tremendous pressure to accept watering down as the developers can always say it is slowing them down or affecting viability. As the codes are so technical, councillors often feel powerless politically to stand up to the developers and the threat of ‘turning the tap off’ on building supply can become too great.

Read the full article here.