In 2001 and 2003 the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE) undertook a review of design skills in local authority planning departments across England. The surveys were intended to reveal 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 were “a lack of skills; lack of policy guidance, both at a national level (e.g. in the 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. This is an area that the 2015/16 House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment felt particularly strongly about, arguing that the ability of local authorities to deliver proactive and positive placemaking “is compromised by skills shortages” (para.364), on which they received a considerable amount of evidence.
To fill the gap in knowledge, the Place Alliance in partnership with the Urban Design Group conduced a national survey of Design Skills in English Local Authorities in order 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 looked at borough approaches to design review: if and how frequently they are used, who provides the services and who manages the panel.
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. It is an activity about which the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out clear guidance: “Local planning authorities should have local design review arrangements in place“ (para.62), although figures about the prevalence of design reviews across England were only available from 2008 when CABE commissioned a further survey.
Interviews with 345 local planning authorities (96 per cent of the total) revealed that 96 per cent of planners recognised the benefit of including design review in the planning system; and, of these, 67 per cent cited access to specialist expertise as the main advantage. In 2008 more than 200 councils — two thirds of the local authorities in England – used the design review network which carried out 676 reviews. Almost ten years later the new survey aimed to report on how practice has changed.
So what did we do?
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 374 local authorities across England. A reminder was sent 30 days after the Freedom of Information deadline had passed.
205 local authorities responded to the survey representing a response rate of 55%, and comparing favourably to the 114 responses recorded by CABE in 2003.
And what did we find?
The findings fit into four broad categories:
- 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 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 officers 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 within their planning authorities, there has been a slight ‘headline’ drop in capacity over the last five years
- The figures, however, hide a significant move to role sharing, with urban design now 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
- 64% use design review at some point (including the heavy users), but most use it only occasionally or very rarely with 36% never using design review at all.
- Of those who use design review, only 19% of local planning authorities are regular (aka monthly or quarterly) users of design review
- 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 national Planning Practice Guidance is poorly used by those seeking a national steer on urban design
- Resources for the production of new proactive local design guidance for sites or areas has 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 actual design skills.
What does all this mean?
In sum the research demonstrated 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, is likely to include 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. Once built, these will be with us for generations to come.
Based on the findings, the following recommendations can be made:
- The aspiration: All local authorities should have access to dedicated design capacity within their planning departments delivered by specialist urban designers 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 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 enhance 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 be 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.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL
 CABE (2003) Survey Results: Review of local authority planning departments, London, CABE
 CABE (2009) Survey of local and regional design review panels, their location, type and impact, London, CABE
 An affiliation between CABE and the eight leading design review panels across England