Design skills in local authorities in england
Based on the responses of 201 local authorities across England,
the research concluded:
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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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.