Planning matters blog | Lichfields

Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

Well-Placed – A good judge of (townscape) character?

Well-Placed – A good judge of (townscape) character?

Michael Lowndes & Judith Livesey 28 Jun 2023
The Government’s ‘beauty’ agenda has increased the focus on the design quality of new buildings and places and whether they are compatible with existing character. The constituent components of well-designed places are articulated in the National Design Guide with the National Model Design Code providing a further steer. But there is often tension in balancing the different aims of sustainable development; whether making efficient use of land or through pursuing viable low or net-zero carbon schemes while also contributing to an appropriate sense of place. Unsurprisingly there are often differing opinions on the acceptability of the design solutions being put forward for their contexts, with debates typically revolving around the thorny issues of increased height or intensity of development, whether new buildings and places would complement or reinforce existing character or whether creating a new, well-designed, sense of place would be appropriate. What is surprising - and often frustrating - is that such concerns are not just raised where development is being introduced into historic townscapes but also in relation to sensitively designed schemes on allocated sites, in opportunity areas and locations where change would relate to unremarkable, sometimes poor, townscapes. Should recently proposed changes to the NPPF come forward, consideration of whether proposals are ‘significantly out of character’ with an area will gain greater importance, and may need balanced and well-evidenced assessment of beauty as measured by national and local design guidance. Lichfields' Good Place Framework, Well-Placed, aims to directly address these issues. Drawing on robust analysis of existing character, an understanding of design policy and good urban design practice, the Good Place Framework provides a balanced analysis of whether development would deliver a well-designed place and how any competing design policy requirements have been reconciled.  A good understanding of existing character, sense of place and identity is the essential starting point. Robust character analysis needs to both underpin the design approach, including whether, in accommodating new development, townscape character should be respected or whether it could be reinforced or reinvented. Although existing townscape character is sometimes set out in local authority urban characterisation studies, coverage remains patchy and the quality and level of detail can be variable.  Bespoke townscape character analysis is generally needed, ideally from an early stage of the design process, to fully understand sensitivities, opportunities and to inform design evolution. While townscape and visual assessment is often helpful and provides a widely accepted approach for assessing the effects on townscape character and views, for some projects this may need to be combined with a more rigorous evaluation of the performance of a scheme against a framework of the local and national design criteria to help decision makers determine whether development would overall deliver a high quality design. Such assessment is particularly relevant and helpful when introducing new development typologies and when increasing height and intensity to optimise the use of land which to some extent will change the character of places (for example, intensification in a suburban context). Well-balanced, robust and authoritative analysis is required to determine whether this will lead to a well-designed and ‘beautiful’ place overall. This is not a generic exercise but one specific to each project and location. Our well-placed product provides this analysis. If you need any more information, please contact Judith Livesey or Michael Lowndes