Design skills and design governance approaches in English local authorities


This report summarises the findings of a short survey of urban design skills and approaches within England’s local planning authorities, and how they have changed over time. A response rate of 71% was achieved.

Reviewing the evidence, it is possible to conclude that whilst urban design and related skills in local authorities have stabilised, they remain at a low ebb and far below where they need to be in order to address the ambitious national agenda on raising the design quality of new development. Signs of the growing use of design review and design codes are positive, but recruitment of design officers into local government remains challenging, proactive community engagement in design is minimal, and design related training remains basic.

 At the current rate of change it will take until 2077 to have at least one urban design officer in every local planning authority in England.




“Funded by the Urban Design Group and supported by the Design Council, the research was launched on the 22nd of July 2021.

Here you can find the full recording of the event. The findings were also presented during “An urban design skills deficit, the consequences and various possibilities for improvement“, a UDG event held in August 2021.

Video recorded and produced by UrbanNous.

Main findings

Based on the responses of 235 local authorities across England, the research concluded:


Nationally, the numbers of urban designers and architects in local planning authorities has stabilised, although availability of the landscape expertise has declined: two fifths of local planning authorities still have no access to urban design advice; almost two thirds no landscape advice; three quarters no architectural advice

Sharing of posts, use of temporary staff and coverage by non-specialists hides the true extent of the deficit

There is a significant increase in the use of external consultants and agency staff to try to fill the gaps, with two fifths of local authorities attempting this. The figure rises to 60% in relation to the production of proactive design guidance and frameworks, and 70% for design codes

Design review is often seen as a means of filling the design skills gaps, rather than a means to challenge and supplement in-house design capacity. 



There are now, on average, 1.7 design experts per local planning authority across England, an increase from 1.6 in 2017, or some 30 designers across the country

Over half of that growth has happened in the relatively few authorities that have larger design teams with only 10 local authorities now having design expertise when previously they did not

Whilst a minority of local authorities have made a strategic investment in a place quality team, many authorities who feel the acute need for design input into their decision-making are unable to secure it because of funding difficulties

Authorities overwhelmingly describe recruitment of urban design staff as ‘challenging’, notably regarding their ability to complete with the private sector

Whilst the employment of temporary staff can help to smooth bumps in workload, on the whole authorities would prefer to build their own capacity, continuity of knowledge and experience in-house


The use of design review continues to rise and national coverage to improve, although still: less than a quarter of authorities use a panel regularly (monthly or quarterly) and two fifths using panels only very rarely or not at all

A lack of awareness still persists about the value of design review to improve design outcomes and of its potential to be cost neutral to local authorities

A decline in the number of internally managed panels has occurred in favour of third-party panels (managed externally to local authorities) which now account for around two thirds of design review

The use of design codes also continues to rise with three quarters of local authorities having some experience of their use

Most local authorities who use them either require or encourage developers to produce codes, with only 14% produced in-house

Over half of authorities anticipate producing codes for key sites or areas of change and only 30% for their entire authority.


Authorities report being too stretched in delivering their minimum statutory duties to take on community engagement themselves

Beyond statutory consultation, around two thirds of authorities use or require the conduct of local consultation events on major development proposals as standard

More proactive hands-on means of engaging communities in the design process, as opposed to simply commenting on designs already proposed, take place in a fifth of authorities, whilst only one in ten maintain a community panel

Typically authorities look to developers to conduct local consultation events and any hands-on engagement on design

The use of social media outreach (used in a quarter of authorities) and online local consultation has grown during the pandemic. Beyond this, there is little evidence of technological approaches being used to encourage a more fundamental engagement of communities with design.


Nationally produced guidance on design plays an important role in guiding local decision-making and is used by the vast majority of authorities. Its importance has now been re-established following the cull of such materials in 2012

Almost three quarters of local planning authorities use local design guidance of various types to guide their design decision-making, sometimes shared across authorities

The majority of non-design officers in planning authorities have access to some form of ongoing design training. With budget cuts eating into training budgets, this is typically focussed on raising awareness about design rather than on developing design skills

Councillors receive some informal, basic design training in just over half of local authorities

Few councils have a designated design or place champion to promote design quality across the authority at large.

Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made:


  1. Establish a new dedicated (and generous) funding stream for raising design skills in local planning authorities. Receipt of this funding should be tied to local authorities submitting a plan for resourcing in-house design expertise over the long-term
  2. Consider funding a market supplement for design staff in local planning authorities as a means to incentivise authorities to make such appointments and to aid recruitment.
  3. Amend national planning policy to make early and independent design review mandatory for all major developments
  4. Ensure the revised Manual for Streets is in a form that can be directly adopted by local authorities and used by staff who lack design training
  5. Commission research examining the operation, scope, timing, funding and benefits of design review across England leading to national guidance on the subject
  6. As part of the Government’s levelling up agenda, consider a light touch fund for the preparation of design codes (beyond the current pilot programme) and the conduct of design review in those parts of the country where these practices are least well developed.


  1. Establish an enabling function that will reach out to local planning authorities and assist them in the production and / or commissioning of design codes in-house
  2. Establish a national charette programme through which effective but efficient methods for engaging communities in design are developed and promoted
  3. Any design training programmes supported by the Office for Place should be hands-on and focussed on raising in-house design skills rather than just design awareness across local government, including in planning and highways authorities
  4. A programme of design awareness training amongst local councillors should be an early priority
  5. A programme of executive level training for chief officers, chief executives and leaders of councils should be devised focussed on culture change and local leadership relating to place quality
  6. Commit to surveying local government on a regular cycle (perhaps every three years) to monitor progress on filling the design skills gap in local authorities.


  1. ll local authorities should invest in in-house design expertise appropriate to the size of their planning team with a remit to prepare or commission design frameworks, codes and guidance, conduct or commission design review and community engagement, offer advice to planning staff on all major developments, implement government guidance on design, and generally raise and support local design quality ambitions
  2. A ratio of design specialist staff to other professional planning staff of 1:10 is a reasonable aspiration to work to
  3. To retain staff and build a stronger culture of design quality, bring proactive design thinking into the mainstream of planning decision-making from strategic thinking, to regeneration, to development delivery
  4. Consider establishing local community panels to engage citizens in an ongoing conversation about design quality
  5. Consider appointing a political design champion in order to advocate for design quality across local government organisations; within planning but also in relation to housing, regeneration, land and property development, high streets and street design and management.

About the Research:

Why did we conduct this research?

In 2017 the Place Alliance and Urban Design Group conducted a survey of urban design skills in local authorities across England, the first such survey since 2003. It concluded that:

Urban design skills and capacity within local planning authorities are woefully low and declining … Critical gaps now exist within local planning authorities, including the ability to produce proactive design guidance in-house with a focus on positively shaping the future of places.”

The Housing Design Audit for England that followed three years later concluded that the design of new housing developments in England remained overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’, with three quarters of the 142 schemes surveyed falling into those categories. The two are strongly related.

This new report looks again at the question of urban design skills in local authorities, the lack of which numerous reports over many years, including that of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission have highlighted as a key barrier to raising the general standard of our built environment across the country. 

It comes at a time when the Government has placed the achievement of better quality design at the centre of its aspirations for a reformed planning process. In particular, new policy and guidance from government is challenging local authorities and developers to strive to deliver “high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places” while the preparation of design codes are being advocated to achieve this.

How did we conduct the Survey?

To get as accurate a picture as possible of the design skills and practices within local government, a Freedom of Information request was sent to local authorities in England. The process involved:

  • Desktop analysis to gather contact details from the Freedom of Information directory and crosscheck it against the official Government’s list of councils in England by type.
  • Online Survey set up on SurveyMonkey with 19 largely multiple choice questions designed for speedy completion by local authorities and in order to encourage a higher response rate (see Appendix A). Most questions also offered the chance to add personal comments.
  • Freedom of Information request emailed on the 1st February 2021 to 322 local authorities in England covering all unitary authorities, district councils, London Boroughs and the City of London. The numbers varied slightly from the 2017 survey due to a limited number of council reorganisations (amalgamations) that have happened since then (see Appendix C).
  • Reminders were sent after both the 20 and 40 day Freedom of Information deadlines had passed with the survey closing on the 30th April. Covid-19 measures resulted in a considerable number of local authorities asking to extend the statutory 20 working days for an FOI response to 40 days.
What time period does our data refer to?

Data collection took place between February 2021 and April 2021. 235 local authorities responded to the survey representing a response rate of 71% and comparing favourably to the 201 responses from 374 authorities recorded in 2017 (see Appendix B in the report)

Further reading:

Savills – Delivering Beauty and the Design Skills Deficit

The delivery of this vision for beauty is reliant on a coordinated response from all in the private and public sector, but do the public sector have the skills to deliver this?  The Place Alliance published a report last week call the ‘Design Deficit’ that reviews the...

Matthew Carmona – The Design Deficit

Matthew Carmona – The Design Deficit

The last comprehensive survey of Design skills in English local authorities noted: “Urban design skills and capacity within local planning authorities are woefully low and declining”  Three years later the Housing Design Audit for England concluded that the design of...