Who Designs Design Codes?

The UK Government envisages widespread adoption of Design Codes by UK Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and recognises the need to identify any obstacles and to skill-up LPA officers by funding selected local authorities to pilot the use of design codes.

I have recently been helping train the expert panel who will be supporting these government-funded pilot design codes. The questions coming back from local authorities raise important issues that don’t seem to have been properly acknowledged so far.

The widespread introduction of Design Codes in the UK fundamentally shifts the role of Local Planning Authorities in the design process from simply stating what they would like to see in planning applications (design guides) to defining the components of place within future planning applications.

This shift raises questions about who is the designer and at what stage does the designing happen?

Discussions and advice around the difference between guides and codes most often focusses on language – the use of ‘must’ instead of ‘should’ or ‘could’. This dichotomy is strengthened by the expectation that codes are measurable and illustrated with requirements rather than just exemplars or best practice.

But it’s not just language or the expectation that they will be more prescriptive: Drafting Design Codes entails selecting specific design solutions and patterns as being most appropriate for any given site or character area. In the National Model Design Code agenda, this selection is based on evidence accumulated through area character appraisals and through stakeholder engagement but nevertheless, preparing Design Codes will entail making ‘design decisions’ that will later be inherited by the design teams for site layouts and individual buildings. In this way, urban design as a process is split over time and across separate organisations and separate design teams.

There is nothing new about the division of design input – landscape architects are used to designing the spaces between the buildings architects have designed; interior designers work within buildings and furniture and product designers design bespoke pieces within an interior designer’s brief.

N.J. Habraken (in The Structure of the Ordinary, Form and Control in the Built Environment 1998) analysed these as ‘levels’ of design, each with a typical lifespan and with the urban structure of street layouts as the most enduring.


What’s new is that up to now, local authority planners have done little actual designing. Of course, some have produced masterplans and strategies that establish land uses, access points and sometimes heights but these are often labelled as ‘illustrative’ in the expectation that developers will make up their own minds about design at planning application stage.

Design Codes fix some of those decisions as mandatory and in so doing the planning authority urban designer becomes a party to the end design.

This represents a fundamental shift in the balance of decision-making in urban design and has implications not just for skills and resourcing within hard-pressed local authority planning departments – working from a Design Code will entail a virtual (and usually unacknowledged) ‘collaboration at a distance’ with multiple designers separated by time and organisation.

Codes raise their own challenges for the design process: who will be engaged and how will requirements be communicated to the design team/s that will eventually work from the code but who may not have even be appointed at the time of drafting the code.

In a code-designed future, the quality of the places we build will be defined by the interaction (or lack of it) between local authority urban designers and design teams working for the private sector. Council designers will no longer have the luxury of blaming the developer if the outcome is not all that they desired. With great power comes great responsibility!


Marcus is an award-winning, international architect and town planner, specialising in creating liveable neighbourhoods and with over 30 years’ experience in a range of building and planning projects. As a leading figure in the UK’s urban design movement, Marcus has been at the forefront of changing the way we plan and build towns and cities. His work with local communities has resulted in places that work for the people that live there, making them more popular, safer and well cared for.

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