Our Head of Design, David Tittle, considers the latest National Design Guide, and how the 10 characteristics in the guide can facilitate better design.

In October 2109 government launched the new National Design Guide (NDG), a part of its wider collection of Planning Practice Guidance. The new guide acts as a coherent and well-considered framework, setting out 10 characteristics of well-designed places. Documents for discussing design quality are immensely helpful when we come to designing, assessing or making decisions about proposed new developments. This guide can help us ensure we discuss all the relevant issues and provide balance to our deliberations. By using the 10 characteristics in the guide, design teams and local authorities can prevent discussions being too narrowly focussed on the particular concerns of one designer, planning officer, councillor or even design review panel member.

When constructing guides like this, it is important to keep the number of headings low for practical purposes. Also when focusing design guidance on the built environment it is important to understand that most factors do not operate in isolation. With this in mind, the guide works to indicate the interdependence and connections between characteristics. Here, authors have highlighted these connections throughout the text, using distinctive graphics. For example, it is interesting to see Context (enhancing the surroundings) and Identity (attractive and distinctive) as two separate headings but with the connections between them well referenced.

This latest design guide iteration is one in a series of lists or guides produced by the Government, industry or academia. This 2019 publication indicates a step change in government’s approach. This time it chose to commission a leading consultancy and charity dedicated to the promotion of design. The new guidance stands apart from previous frameworks because it works to demonstrate what good design means in practice and throughout its production, careful consideration was given to the scope and content of the guide and how it might be used.

Design South East welcomes this guide; the challenge moving forward is to make its contents a common language, enabling a wider range of built environment stakeholders to discuss design using these terms and applying them to local contexts. Whether you are a councillor on a planning committee or a star architect, we all have differing opinions and pre-occupations. The beauty of a document like the National Design Guide is that it acts as a checklist, ensuring we consider all the key factors when developing designs for buildings and places, or making decisions about planning proposals.

For local authorities who lack design policies or guidance, or where those are out of date, the guide now gives us an evidence base for robust design-based planning decisions that will have weight at appeal. Just as the 2018 revision to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) led to a series of positive appeal decisions that upheld refusals on design grounds, we can expect this guide to give planning officers greater confidence to refuse poor design. Meanwhile, anyone developing design guidance should use this framework to structure their documents, interpreting its content to reflect local conditions. Designers preparing design and access statements should show how they have responded to the 10 characteristics in the guide for their particular scheme.

As an organisation with design review at its core, Design South East will draw on this guide when developing services for local authorities, and in the training we deliver for officers and councillors.

Download the national design guide here.