The new Office for Place aims to encourage popular development explains Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of its advisory board
The Office for Place was formally launched in July. What is it?
It’s a new office set up by the Ministry of Housing, which helps communities to encourage development that they find beautiful, and refuse what they find ugly. Initially it sits within the ministry but might later become an independent body. It aims to catalyse change across government, planning and the development sector to create popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places.
How will that happen?
We have five main areas of work, but in the first year will focus on two: gathering evidence on popular placemaking, and sharing it with planners and neighbourhoods to support the creation of design codes – simple visual tools representing local character and preferences. The National Planning Policy Framework advises local authorities to develop design codes, and the new National Model Design Code gives guidance on the process. The government set the brief and worked with Urbed to produce it. Among other things, the Office for Place will support pilot codes in around 20 communities and share the learnings from that – the first pilots are up and running.
Design codes are a significant feature of the government’s proposed planning reforms. What are the benefits?
Research shows that opposition to development is often driven by lack of trust in developers and the planning process. Design codes can help make planning more certain in giving neighbourhoods and developers clarity about expectations for the design, layout and sustainability. This can give people more confidence about change. We would also benefit from a more diverse range of developers creating homes and neighbourhoods. To encourage competition from self-builders and small developers we need to reduce cost and risk. Regulation that is clear and comprehensible makes it easier for more people to do development. Design codes offer certainty and encourage diversity of supply and better outcomes.
Will design codes discourage new or unusual architecture?
Design codes won’t necessarily code for everything – councils will make their own calls on that. Codes will probably remain tight in conservation areas, but in towns contemplating urban extensions they might initially be quite loose. The aim is not to control all development in all circumstances. Codes can set a clear framework, and help provide a smoother route to planning consent. We don’t want to stop the weird and the wonderful, just level the playing field so we don’t rely on a small number of house builders to deliver the ‘good ordinary’.