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A role for design review in the new planning system

Published: 2 December 2020Good growth: Aerial view of Hemel Hempstead

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Planning reforms create an important role for the Hertfordshire Design Review Service, to support its local planning authority partners in the delivery of high-quality and well-designed sustainable development.

The Government has consulted on its Planning White Paper for reform of the planning system, which  includes a new focus on “design and sustainability, placemaking” and “the creation of beautiful places.”

It proposes to deliver the design quality of new development through locally prepared design guidance and codes with community input, which set rules for the character and appearance of new buildings and places.

Whilst the emphasis on design quality is welcomed, the reforms are likely to present significant challenges for local planning authorities in terms of resourcing and the recruitment and retention of the relevant expertise for the preparation of guidance and codes within tight timescales.

In 2017, research supported by the Urban Design Group and Place Alliance identified that urban design skills and capacity within English local planning authorities was low and declining, including the ability to produce proactive design guidance.

In 2020 this situation continues to worsen, and for Hertfordshire is exacerbated by its proximity to London, which offers competitive salaries and an attractive lifestyle for young professionals.

The Hertfordshire Design Review Service (HDRS) can help to plug this resources gap by providing professionals from a range of natural and built environment disciplines to supplement and support planning services. Its members can be recruited with ease, via an established framework agreement at competitive rates, for a bespoke piece of work, or to provide input throughout the duration of a project lifecycle.

The White Paper follows the launch of the National Design Guide, which helps local authority officers and councillors understand the key characteristics of ‘place’ and key design issues that need to be addressed and anticipates a national model design code. It is the intention that these national documents should then inform local level design guides, design guidance and codes, produced in collaboration with local communities.   

HDRS can help local authorities and developers by providing an integrated approach to design, so that environment, health, employment, movement, housing, place-making and lifestyle, are addressed in an integrated and sustainable manner. It does this by reviewing projects at conceptual, sketch and final design stage. It can make it easier for local authorities to establish priorities and can help both local authorities and developers save time and money.

Jon Rowland, Joint Chair of the Hertfordshire Design Review Service says, “Design is important. We need to stop reacting and start setting the agenda. Just building housing estates over the countryside to achieve quantity isn’t the answer. With housing projects of significant size, such as urban extensions or new settlements, it is important to get the fundamentals right. HDRS has shown that it can help local authorities and developers achieve better schemes.”

The Design Review Network has met to discuss the implications of the White Paper proposals.  It reflected on its collective experience and identified critical challenges in terms of ensuring that community engagement is meaningful, and that design codes are ‘fit for purpose’ and have the teeth to deliver genuine high-quality design and sustainability outcomes – a challenge which they agree design review panels are well equipped to meet.

Indeed, HDRS is well placed to support this process. Its members have the knowledge, skills and expertise to facilitate community workshops and enable participants to articulate what they value about where they live and translate those qualities into a set of effective rules which are easily applicable yet robust.

Jennifer Owen, Building Futures & Landscape Team Leader at Hertfordshire County Council

This blog was written by Jennifer Owen, Building Futures & Landscape Team Leader at Hertfordshire County Council. For more information about HDRS please visit,