THE DESIGN DEFICIT
Design skills and design governance approaches in English local authorities
Based on the responses of 235 local authorities across England, the research concluded:
1 – IN-HOUSE CAPACITY HAS STABILISED BUT REMAINS VERY LOW
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.
2 – FUNDING AND RECRUITMENT CHALLENGES LIMIT AMBITIONS
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
3 – THE USE OF DESIGN REVIEW AND DESIGN CODES IS VERY VARIABLE BUT RISING
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.
4 – PROACTIVE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ON DESIGN IS RARE
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.
5 – DESIGN GUIDANCE IS VALUED BUT DESIGN TRAINING LANGUISHES
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:
FOR CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
- 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
- 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.
- Amend national planning policy to make early and independent design review mandatory for all major developments
- 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
- Commission research examining the operation, scope, timing, funding and benefits of design review across England leading to national guidance on the subject
- 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.
FOR OFFICE FOR PLACE
- 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
- Establish a national charette programme through which effective but efficient methods for engaging communities in design are developed and promoted
- 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
- A programme of design awareness training amongst local councillors should be an early priority
- 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
- 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.
FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT
- 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
- A ratio of design specialist staff to other professional planning staff of 1:10 is a reasonable aspiration to work to
- 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
- Consider establishing local community panels to engage citizens in an ongoing conversation about design quality
- 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.