councillors’ attitudes towards residential desigN


This report summarises views from a national survey of local councillors in England on their approach to the design of new residential development. For too long we have been building too few homes and those that we build are often of a quality that unites local communities in opposition against them.  Understanding the role of local politicians as regards the design of new housing development: their aspirations, motivations, mode of operating and frustrations, was the purpose of this national survey. This research asks, how are our local politicians playing their part in helping to deliver better design?

Main findings

Based on the responses of 1213 local authorities councillors across England,
the research concluded: 

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1. Design quality is undervalued by councils, but makes development more acceptable to residents

  • Design quality in residential development is seen as a very important concern for the overwhelming majority of councillors and their constituents. Almost no councillors feel it is unimportant
  • Councillors in all political parties and across all regions of England share the concern to see high quality residential design in their area
  • Given the levels of political support, there is some frustration that local authorities (corporately) are not taking design matters seriously enough
  • Almost all councillors believe that better design can make development more acceptable to local residents.

2. There has been some improvement in design, but from a low base and not everywhere

  • A small majority of councillors believe there has been some improvement in the design of new residential development in recent years, although this is coming from a low base
  • A significant minority (concentrated more heavily in regions under the greatest development pressure) feel that design quality in new residential development continues to decline
  • Efforts to involve local communities in the decision-making process and the willingness of some developers to change their practices to prioritise design is seen as having a positive impact on design quality
  • The standard practices of other developers, inflexibility of local highways authorities, loss of design skills in local authorities and the perceived change in national policy to a presumption in favour of development (regardless of design) were blamed for poor design
  • Councillors advocate positively engaging with local developers.

3. Overdevelopment and local character are key

  • The drive to optimise the development potential of sites (both by developers and in policy) is leading to a different pattern of development that councillors believe often feels alien in the local context
  • The two standout reasons for rejecting residential schemes on design grounds were that developments were out of character with their area and / or – by virtue of their height, massing or density – would be overdeveloped
  • Councillors also believe that development patterns are leading to problems integrating parking, poor access to local facilities and amenities, over-dominant roads (which feel unsafe) and to a mono-culture of housing without other uses
  • Local character was viewed as a broad concept by councillors that encompasses all the elements that are special about the physical and social qualities of a place and which make it distinctive
  • The choice of materials, relative greenness (including open spaces), prevailing density, a respect for history, the bulk and height of buildings, their architectural quality (not bland standardised designs), and the incorporation of necessary services and amenities were all seen as key character giving elements
  • A minority view worries that new housing too often caricatures the local vernacular (leading to pastiche) and that an undue emphasis on traditional design can undermine the potential for innovation in design.

4. Local authorities need to reject more poorly designed housing developments

  • Councillors are supportive of their planning team’s ability to influence design for the better, although a concern exists in many councils around the absence of the necessary skills and capacity to specifically address design issues
  • This absence of design skills and capacity in planning teams strongly correlates with perceptions amongst councillors of a decline in the quality of new housing design
  • Councillors believe that more planning applications should be rejected on design grounds in order to send out a firm message that poor design will not be tolerated. They worry, however, that such measures won’t be supported on appeal.

5. Locally tailored design governance improves design, standardised approaches undermine it

  • Councillors believe that key design governance tools can help to improve design and strengthen the case against poor design at appeal
  • Effective tools include better design policy in local plans and neighbourhood plans, local design guidance (including design codes) that articulate clear design aspirations, and the availability of design advice from specialist design officers and/or a design review panel
  • More comprehensive national guidance on design would support the creation of design governance tools locally
  • Councillors advocate confronting highways authorities over the negative impact of their highways and road adoption standards and encouraging the adoption of new standards with a strong place focus.

6. Councillors are political and officers technical

  • In some circumstances design can become very political locally: in the face of ubiquitous pressures to densify, when set against conservation concerns (built or natural), or when local facilities and amenities (including parking) are under strain. But design is rarely a party political concern.
  • The large majority of councillors would and do vote against officer recommendations if, in their opinion, developments recommended for approval are either poorly designed or will impact negatively on local needs
  • Councillors admit that design can be used as a smokescreen to hide NIMBY tendencies, especially when the design of developments is obviously poor
  • Judgements over local needs are often wrapped up in the extent of local opposition from residents to development proposals
  • Developers, and to a lesser degree officers, were often not trusted by many councillors. Here the ability of officers to give confident advice on design matters was seen as a critical factor in gaining and retaining the trust of councillors.

7. The unique local political role

  • Councillors see their unique contribution as acting as a bulwark against powerful developers (and national policy) seeking to impose inappropriate developments upon their localities for short-term economic reasons
  • They are often frustrated over the compromise which the system extracts which they see as frustrating them from fully representing residents’ views that developments should ‘fit in’ to the existing context. Many councillors feel they have no positive influence at all.
  • Councillors see their key leadership role in terms of setting and upholding local policy on design
  • Other important roles involve contributing local (lay) knowledge, acting as a conduit to the community, helping to educate constituents about the process by explaining how things can go wrong (which is often the focus of residents), and helping to support the case within the council to better resource planning (and design)
  • Councillors would welcome better design training, including case studies of success from which they can learn.

Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made:

For the government

  • There is a need to publicise successful planning appeals made on design grounds in order to give councils the necessary confidence to reject poor quality design.
  • The advice on design in the national Planning Practice Guidance needs urgently updating in order to strengthen guidance to local authorities on the design of residential development and to encourage the adoption of proactive design governance tools locally.

For local planning authorities

  • Local authorities need to take the achievement of high quality residential design more serious as a corporate objective. This can only be achieved by investing in i) the necessary specialist design skills (in-house and through design review), ii) the preparation of proactive tools of design governance such as local design guides and design codes, and iii) by demonstrating leadership and rejecting applications outright if proposals fail to meet clearly defined local design quality aspirations.
  • Policy and guidance locally should be more specific about: i) defining the valued dimensions of local character, ii) parameters for measuring the acceptable development quantum (height massing and density) on sites, iii) how to successfully integrate roads and parking, iv) expectations regarding the provision and integration of non-residential uses, facilities and amenities (including greenery), v) avoiding caricaturing the local vernacular.

For Highways authorities

  • Highways authorities need to rapidly update their highways design and road adoption standards to give them a strong and explicit place focus (along the lines advocated in Manual for Streets).

For developers

  • Good urban design shaped through local engagement and a genuine understanding of local character is the most effective means of winning local community support for new
    housing development. 

For councillors

  • Encouraging communities to get involved in neighbourhood planning can help to establish clear local design aspirations in a manner that can’t be ignored.
  • It is incumbent on councillors involved in decision-making on design to engage in comprehensive and ongoing training on the subject in order to supplement their important local and lay knowledge with the more specialist design knowledge required for a design leadership role.

About the Research:

Why did you conduct the research?

As key decision-makers within their localities, not least as guardians of the local planning system, local councillors play a critical role in helping to shape the local built environment across the country. Yet, despite this, we know little about their role and perspectives beyond  anecdote and hearsay. Recent Place Alliance research which examined the availability of design skills within local planning authorities in  England suggested that not only are urban design skills and capacity within local planning authorities woefully low and declining, but  councillors themselves are increasingly poorly prepared and equipped to take on such a critical design decision-making role. Indeed, only half of councillors receive any kind of design training and even where it exists,  training appears to be minimal.

Understanding the role of Councillors in England as regards the design of new housing development: their aspirations, priorities, challenges and responsibilities, was the purpose of this follow up national survey. The revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes it very  clear that good urban design is a national expectation and goes so far as to caution that: “Permission should be refused for development of  poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and  the way it functions” (para. 129).

How did you conduct the survey?

In order to get as accurate a picture as possible, a short survey was sent to 16,578 councillors in local authorities in England.  The figure included councillors in district and unitary authorities (with responsibility for planning, amongst other matters) and county authorities (including responsibility for highways).

The survey contained a combination of ten closed and open questions and was emailed to councillors in June 2018 (see Appendix A in the report).  Reminders were sent twice in July and again in August 2018.  Contact details were obtained from a dataset provided by Oscar Research, the cost of which was covered by a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) grant managed by Urban Design London for the Design Network.

In total, 1213 councillors from local authorities across England responded to the initial survey representing a response rate of 7.3% (see Appendix B in re report).  Of these, 343 respondents expressed an interest in being interviewed in more depth.  Given the very large number of such positive responses it was decided to conduct an additional short survey to drill down into some of the issues raised by the initial survey and in order to capture as many views as possible.

The follow-up survey had six largely open questions (see Appendix C in the report).  Data collection took place in September and October 2018.  A total of 93 Councillors responded to this questionnaire resulting in a response rate of 27%.

Noticeably higher response rates to the initial survey were apparent from councillors in southern regions to those in the North and Midlands. This may simply reflect the development pressures in different parts of the country. 

What time period does your data refer to?

Data collection took place between June 2018 and October 2018. Total of 1213 local authorities councillors responded to the survey representing a response rate of 7.3%

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