28 Aug 2020

The Government's 'Planning for the Future' White Paper, published on 6 August, sets in motion a consultation for planning reforms which, if implemented to their full extent, would be the biggest overhaul to the planning system in England since the Second World War. The consultation closes on 29 October. For an excellent overview of the White Paper proposals, click here.

The draft reforms are themed around three 'pillars', and in this article I consider the approach of the second pillar – 'Planning for beautiful and sustainable places' – in particular the plans for improving the design of residential streets and associated public realm, and the development of principles first laid down in 2007 through the Department for Transport's 'Manual for Streets' ("MfS"). 

It is at this point I must declare an interest in the proposals to update the MfS, having been a member of the research team responsible for drafting the guidance. As a former transport planner, now planning lawyer, it is satisfying to see the MfS continues to be relevant today, but the challenge has always been how best to instil its principles in the local decision making structure.

The White Paper offers an unequivocal call to arms: – "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". How can this aspiration be satisfied whilst also seeking to apply a standardised and evidence-led approach to street design?

Beyond aesthetics

The second pillar of the White Paper proposals addresses the practical ways in which better design of residential dwellings can be instilled in the planning system, with the aim of facilitating a 'fast-track for beauty' as recommended by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This proposal has dominated the headlines but a fixation with building architecture belies the scale of the challenge.

The second pillar also proposes reform to the framework within which developments are consented from a streetscape and public realm design perspective. This follows on from the National Design Guide, published in October 2019, proposing a National Model Design Code (due in the autumn) to set out detailed parameters for the design of streets and public spaces in different types of location. In addition the White Paper proposes a "revised and consolidated Manual for Streets".

The Manual is dead, long live the Manual?!

When it was first published the MfS was already long overdue, with local authority planning and highway officers reliant on the outdated 'Design Bulletin 32', first published in 1977, for guidance on standards and layout of residential roads. The MfS sought to bring about a step change in the way residential streets were designed, with an increased focus on permeability for non-motorised users and placemaking, whilst at the same time 'designing in' road safety. The paradigm shift has been relatively uncontested, so why does MfS need to be revisited?

One of the clear messages from the White Paper is the suggestion that improved residential design can only be consistently delivered where there are national and local design codes by which to measure the acceptability of a scheme. The MfS was brought in to be a practitioners' guide, but whilst it may be a material consideration in planning decisions, it has no formal status in policy or law. When considered alongside other factors such as site constraints and viability assessment, the principles set out in MfS can easily be lost. 

The proposed National Model Design Code is not specific to lightly trafficked residential streets like MfS, but seeks to address the lack of 'teeth' to the existing design guidance. The Code will introduce detailed parameters for different types of development including street proportions and cycling and walking provision. There will be worked examples, and the document will complement a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets. 

Though no further detail is given in the White Paper as to the role of a revised and consolidated MfS, it seems likely it will be broadened in scope and merged with 'Manual for Streets 2', published in 2010, which sought to apply the MfS principles to non-residential streets. This would follow the recommendation of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and would logically rationalise the documents to sit alongside the National Design Guide and Code, with their application also being wider than just residential streets. 

From great ideas to local buy-in

The White Paper proposals outline a new, consistent structure for the application of national design principles at the local level – "As national guidance, we will expect the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and the revised Manual for Streets to have a direct bearing on the design of new communities".

Nevertheless, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission also highlighted the importance of recognising local design traditions. The White Paper seeks to balance a new national-level design framework with a call for the development of local design guides and codes, with input from local communities a pre-requisite to the documents being given weight in the planning process. Where these are not in place, as a matter of policy the National Design Guide, Code, and MfS will steer local decisions on the form of development.

The varied adoption of MfS by local authorities has been a particular shortfall of the guidance. The White Paper proposals, to use national principles as the foundation for bespoke local-level design guides and codes, could provide the missing link to deliver the practical application. However there will be significant challenges to achieving this. The MfS advocates the prioritisation of pedestrians at the top of the road user hierarchy with natural controlling of vehicle speeds through street design (including by shortened forward visibility). Whilst policymakers may now support this approach, local support for a design guide/code which demotes private vehicles to the bottom of the hierarchy will be far more difficult to secure.

Some further thoughts

The White Paper sets out a vast suite of proposed reforms to the English planning system, yet it extends to a mere 84 pages. Therefore it would seem sensible to consider the underlying basis for the reforms, and in the case of street design the White Paper follows (almost to the letter) the recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission's report 'Living with Beauty'. The report offers hope that the principles of street design first set out in the Manual for Streets back in 2007 will remain at the heart of the Government approach. The report states:

"We have seen some excellent work on how highway design can help reclaim streets for people, with the provision of cycle infrastructure or public transport supporting more humane and popular places. This now needs to become the norm, not the exception."

The importance of putting good street and public realm design onto an appropriate footing – by building it into national and local policy – should not be underestimated. In its research the Commission found the pre- Manual for Streets guidance Design Bulletin 32, drafted in the 1970s and withdrawn in 2007, continues to be used by some local authorities in their assessment of street layouts. Quite rightly the Commission calls this out as unacceptable and directs the Planning Inspectorate to reject any evidence for scheme design based on outdated guidance. What it does demonstrate is that, in planning, old habits die hard.