Planning for a ‘Beautiful and Sustainable’ future

On the 6th August 2020, the Government issued its long-awaited White Paper for consultation on its planned future reforms of the planning system; the aim being to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed. In this article I will concentrate on the third out of five proposals for reform - to bring a new focus on design and sustainability.

Angela Schembri, Planning Director


“We want to ensure that we have a system in place that enables the creation of beautiful places that will stand the test of time, protects and enhances our precious environment, and supports our efforts to combat climate change and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.”

MHCLG - White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ August 2020


To deliver this vision, the Government has said it will:

  • Cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before.
  • Create a ‘fast-track system’ where swift planning approval will be granted for beautiful buildings.
  • Establish national design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities.
  • Ensure Councils prioritise good design especially where there is compliance with local design guides and codes.
  • Ensure the planning system supports efforts to combat climate change and maximises environmental benefits.
  • Facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver the commitment to net-zero by 2050.
  • Expect new development not only to be beautiful, but to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm’, with a greater focus on ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’ within the National Planning Policy Framework.


Some would say this is a bold, ambitious and responsible vision. Others may suggest that the planning system has always focused on design and sustainability, just without the fast-track/acceleration incentive. However, most of us will probably wonder if we’ve heard all this before? Is this really a ‘new’ focus?

The Government’s Urban Task Force Report “Towards an Urban Renaissance” (June 1999) talked of a vision for Britain’s cities based on “design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility” with “earlier, greater and better-informed attention to urban design.” So, twenty years later, is it time for yet another urban renaissance – albeit newly incentivised because it hasn’t really been working?

According to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (an independent body set up in November 2018 to advise Government on how to promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new build homes and neighbourhoods) too many places built during recent decades fail to reflect what is special about their local area or create a high-quality environment of which local people can be proud.

Residential - new build - housing.jpg

So how does the Government plan to remedy this?

1. Prepare design guidance and codes and make them more binding on development decisions

  • Government to publish a National Model Design Code to supplement the National Design Guide published in October 2019 to set out more detailed parameters for development in different location types
  • National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and the revised Manual for Streets to have a direct bearing on the design of new communities and will guide development decisions if locally-produced guides and codes do not exist
  • Design guidance and codes to be prepared locally with community involvement and based on empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area
  • Design codes to be more binding on decisions about development
  • Changes to the NPPF to support the planning system’s role in fostering better buildings, places and settlements

2. Government to set up a body to support the delivery of locally-popular design codes and each local authority to have a chief officer for design and place-making

There’s a suggestion that this could be delivered by establishing a new ‘arms-length body’ reporting to Government, or a new centre of expertise within Homes England, or reinforcing the existing network of architecture and design centres.

The Government fully appreciates that this will require a step-change in the design skills available to many local planning authorities, as well as the right prioritisation and leadership across the sector. This will not be a quick process and authorities will need support, training and additional resource.

3. Government to take a leadership role in delivering well-designed homes and places

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission recommended that Homes England should attach sufficient value to design as well as price, and give greater weight to design quality in its work. The Government supports this recommendation and recognises that the work of Homes England is an important route through which it can lead by example.

4. Fast-tracking for beauty to incentivise and accelerate high quality development

  • Changes to the NPPF to make it clear that there will be faster decisions on schemes where there is a demonstrated ‘commitment to quality,’ compliance with local design guides and codes and greater certainty about their prospects for delivery
  • Introduce new legislation that requires a masterplan and site-specific design codes to be agreed as a condition of the ‘permission in principle’ in identified Growth Areas
  • Introduce new legislation to widen and change the nature of permitted development, so that popular and replicable forms of development can be approved easily and quickly
  • Develop a limited set of form-based development types that allow the redevelopment of existing residential buildings where relevant conditions are satisfied to enable increased densities (through permitted development rights). Prior approval would still be needed for certain design aspects (such as materials) as well as other important planning considerations – flood risk, safe access etc.
  • Local planning authorities or neighbourhood planning groups to use local orders to modify how the standard types of development apply in their areas, based on local evidence of what options are most popular with the wider public

5. Facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver our world-leading commitment to net-zero by 2050.

  • From 2025, new homes to produce 75-80 percent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels. These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’, with the ability to become fully zero carbon homes over time
  • Homes built under the new planning system will not need retrofitting in the future
  • Government to explore options for the future of energy efficiency standards beyond 2025
  • Government to clarify the role for Local Planning Authorities in setting energy efficient standards for new build developments
  • Monitor and enforce high standards for the design, environmental performance and safety of new and refurbished buildings

What are the issues arising from the Government’s vision for Building Beautiful?

What are the issues arising from the Government’s vision for Building Beautiful?

It’s doubtful that anyone will be surprised by the emphasis on weighty legislative changes, design codes and form-based codes to make building more beautiful but also easier and more predictable through expanding permitted development rights. However, the solution on the table raises some interesting questions which will need to be considered and answered:

  • Local Authorities and Design Councils will be tasked with producing detailed, good-practice design guidance. This will be a costly and lengthy process which will rely on the active participation of a number of groups with varied ‘agendas’ to reach some sort of consensus – potentially a tricky process especially with the Government’s new emphasis on up-front engagement. How do you persuade local communities to positively engage in this preparation of local design codes?
  • How will a national design code reflect conflicting economic, cultural and social positions?
  • How often will design guidance change to reflect changes in local circumstances? What, or how do you collect the ‘empirical evidence base’ to ensure that guidance is based on verifiable data?
  • Will there be a place for innovative and uniquely beautiful buildings even if they don’t meet ‘the code?’
  • There’s a lot of emphasis on making new residential development beautiful. What about non-residential buildings and infrastructure? Do they not need to be ‘beautiful’?
  • It’s widely considered that reusing buildings is often a more sustainable form of development. Would reusing a building qualify for a ‘fast-track’ decision, or is this incentive only on offer for new residential developments?
  • What happens if your scheme doesn’t comply with local design guides and codes but does offer significant alternative planning gain? Will the planning balance no longer apply and will determination of your scheme take longer?
  • Will having a chief officer for design and place-making at each Local Planning Authority result in a consistent design approach and if so, is there a danger that uniform forms of development will emerge?
  • Can a National Model Design Code be used by local authorities to guide preparation of local design codes which will be used to set out acceptable forms of development? Can design become a ‘one size fits all’ concept?
  • How will robust environmental assessment be applied to ‘fast-track’ developments especially if current environment protections and processes are retained?
  • Who wins the fight between environmental sustainability and beauty?
  • Is the planning process about to become even more front-loaded and who pays?

However, the obvious question is “How do you define ‘beauty?” Can beautiful design be prescriptive and simply based on meeting codes and standards - and should it be consistent? If so, how easy will it be to reverse a decision where it was ruled that a scheme was not beautiful if it’s going to be so absolute? Can beautiful buildings be delivered when dealing with such a subjective topic?

Despite the many questions, it’s certain that creating beautiful developments and place-making is a welcomed and supported ambition and in actual fact, haven’t true sustainability and beauty always gone hand in hand……?

Angela Schembri

Planning Director



It’s clear that more detail will need to emerge from the consultation paper on this particular theme and this is promised in the Autumn in the form of the Government’s response to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report; the National Model Design Code to supplement the October 2019 National Design Guide; consultation on changes to the NPPF to foster better design and the Government’s response to the Future Homes Standard consultation.

Time for us all to brush-off and ‘step-up’ on our design skills – or at least speak to a someone who can. Your usual RPS contact can help – give us a call.

The deadline for comments on the White Paper is 26th October 2020.

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