Design skills in local authorities in england


The research comprised a short survey of urban design skills / resources within local planning authorities nationally, and an analysis of how the capacities of planning teams have changed over the last five years.

It demonstrates that urban design skills and capacity within local planning authorities are woefully low and declining and that these gaps are not being filled by the patchy, albeit increasing, use of design review. 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.

A very real danger now exists that as we gear up to deliver a greater number of homes nationally, the absence of design expertise locally will result in a new generation of substandard developments. This, for example, includes new housing estates that are dominated by roads and tarmac, lacking any greenery or character, and which are disconnected from public transport and local amenities. Moreover, these will be with us for generations to come.

Main findings

Based on the responses of 201 local authorities across England,
the research concluded: 

Download the Research

In-house urban design capacity is very low

Almost half of local planning authorities have no dedicated in-house design capacity at all. Of those that do, most have only a single officer often covering design as one part of a larger role.

Only around 10% have what might be referred to as an urban design / place-making team (more than two people).

There is an increasingly heavy reliance on conservation staff to double up as urban design officers, and a significant reliance on external consultants (with all the cost implications that will occur).

It appears that non-specialist planning officers are making the key decisions in relation to design schemes of all types, including public realm schemes and the preparation of design guidance.

Capacity is declining over time

For those with urban design skills in-house, there has been a slight drop in capacity over the last five years.

The figures, however, hide a significant move to role sharing, with urban design now a typically only a fractional responsibility within a larger role, e.g. conservation and design, and no longer conducted by an officer or team with specialist design expertise.

Design Review activity is concentrated in a few places

Only 19% of local planning authorities are regular (either monthly or quarterly) users of design review.

Most of Local Authorities use Design Review only occasionally, very rarely or never.

About a third of local authorities that use design review manage their own design review panel. Others look to a wide range of providers, including other local authorities, to deliver a design review service.

The delivery of proactive design guidance and training

Use of design guidance beyond that available in the local plan varies tremendously, with over half of local planning authorities still favouring their own internally produced supplementary design guidance.

The Planning Practice Guidance is poorly used by those seeking national guidance on urban design.

Resources for the production of new proactive local design guidance for sites or areas have now largely disappeared.

Urban design related training is still available for three quarters of planning officers and half of councillors, but typically this is minimal and focused on raising awareness rather than on delivering design skills.

Based on the findings, the following recommendations are made:

The aspiration

All local authorities should have access to dedicated design capacity within their planning departments delivered by specialist urban design staff trained to degree level. Ideally, this should be available in-house and should be sufficient to offer informed and timely advice on all major development projects, as well as to prepare proactive design guidance for key sites and development areas.

The reality

The constraints on public finances mean that this is not always possible. In such circumstances, it is better to have some in-house specialist urban design capacity rather than none. Having no expertise to call upon dooms an area to a culture of poor design that ultimately damages the long-term economic development of such places whilst raising heath, social care and infrastructure maintenance costs.

As a minimum

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes it clear that when assessing important applications, local authorities should have regard to the recommendations of a design review panel (para. 62). This means recommendations from an appropriately skilled, informed and independent panel.

At no cost

The provision of in-house urban design expertise and reference to an appropriate design review panel need not be a financial burden on local authorities. Direct charges to developers for design review, funding through planning performance agreements, from section 106 agreements or via a community infrastructure levy, and monies from the recently enhanced planning fees can all be used to finance such services on a sustainable basis.

Being proactive

Equally the provision of proactive design guidance for key sites and areas need not be a costly and time-consuming process. The best guidance is short, clear and focussed on the public interest design issues that really matter – the urban design framework. The detail of design can be left until later. Proactive design guidance should built upon ambitious and aspirational design policy in the local plan.

Engaging others

Voluntary and local community expertise (including the use of local students) can be harnessed in order to feed local knowledge, energy and enthusiasm into the process of delivering better place quality, including into the production of high-quality design guidance.

Investing wisely

Training budgets have been cut back but still exist in local planning authorities. These might be better spent on commissioning dedicated and more ‘hands on’ place-making training for planning officers and councillors, rather than on sending staff to passive lecture-based seminars.

About the Research:

Why did you conduct this research?

In 2001 the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE) undertook a review of design skills in local authority planning departments across England. At the end of 2003 they repeated the survey to see how things had changed. The survey was intended to discover what kinds of advice in the field of design quality were available to planning authorities and in what ways more advice could usefully be provided. At the time, local authorities argued that the key reason for not taking a more active role in challenging poorly designed schemes was “a lack of skills; lack of policy guidance, both at a national level (eg PPSs) and local level; and a fear of lack of support by the Planning Inspectorate”. Since the CABE survey in 2003 no further countrywide investigation has taken place. This is despite considerable anecdotal evidence that in recent years has pointed to a rapid deterioration in the ‘discretionary’ design services available to local authorities as the impact of austerity has continued to bite.

The aim of the first part of this research is therefore to fill the knowledge gap on design skills within local authorities and to establish what type of support local government needs to drive up the design quality of those schemes passing through the planning system.

The survey also looks at approaches to design review: if and how frequently they are used, who provides the services and who manages it. With the demise of national funding for design review from 2013, the landscape for design review has rapidly and fundamentally changed. From a public-sector activity offered free of charge, design review is now typically a pay to use service delivered by a wide variety of providers.

How did you conduct the Survey?

The project was limited by time and resources, so in order 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 research encompassed:  

  • Desktop analysis to gather contact details from the Freedom of Information directory  
  • Online Survey covering issues of design skills and design review. This was kept as simple as possible with just nine substantive questions (see Appendix A of the report) in order to reduce the time local authorities needed to spend in answering the questions and to encourage a higher response rate.  
  • Freedom of Information request emailed to 374 local authorities in England, at Borough / District / City / County level  
  • Reminders sent after the 30 day Freedom of Information deadline had passed 
What time period does your data refer to?

Data collection took place between February 2017 and May 2017. 201 local authorities responded to the survey representing a response rate of 54% and comparing favourably to the 114 responses recorded by CABE in 2003 (see Appendix B of the report). 

Further reading:

Design by a thousand cuts

Design by a thousand cuts

The UK is on the verge of a major expansion in housebuilding, yet new research by the Place Alliance has revealed a chronic lack of urban design expertise in local authorities. Read more →