82. 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 new housing developments in England remained overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’.  The two are fundamentally linked.

Unfortunately, the stark conclusion of The design deficit, our latest Place Alliance research report, suggests that 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.  This dearth has been recognised in numerous reports over many years, including recently by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.  Its consequence is that no matter how national ambitions on design rise on paper, we will never witness a general improvement in the quality of new development until we crack this particular nut!

To get as accurate a picture as possible of the design skills and related practices within local government, a Freedom of Information request was sent to local authorities in England.  230 local authorities responded to the survey representing a response rate of 71%.

In-house capacity has stabilised but remains very low

Comparing the headline results with four years ago, the numbers of urban designers and architects in local planning authorities seems to have stabilised, although this is set against a reduction in the availability of landscape expertise:

  • two fifths of local planning authorities still have no access to urban design advice;
  • almost two thirds no landscape advice; and
  • three quarters no architectural advice

The sharing of posts, use of temporary staff and coverage of design issues by non-specialists still hides the true extent of the deficit, but there has been a significant increase in the use of external consultants and agency staff to try to fill the gaps.  Two fifths of local authorities are doing this, a figure that rises to three fifths when seen in relation to the production of proactive design guidance and frameworks, and almost to three quarters for design codes.

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Advice from design review panels are often seen as a means to fill this design skills gaps, rather than – as they should be – a means to supplement and challenge internal and external design advice.

Funding and recruitment challenges limit ambitions

The availability of skilled design advice varies significantly between authorities.  If we even-out the provision, there are now, on average, 1.7 design experts per local planning authority across England, an increase from 1.6 in 2017.  This represents just 30 designers across the country as a whole, over half whom are in the relatively few authorities that already have larger design teams.  Just ten local authorities now have internal design expertise when previously they did not.

Beyond the minority of local authorities who have made a strategic investment in establishing a place quality team, most planning authorities feel the acute need for design input into their decision-making but are unable to secure it because of funding and recruitment difficultiesAuthorities overwhelmingly describe recruitment of design expertise as ‘challenging’, particularly in the face of competition from the private sector.  While the employment of temporary staff is used to overcome this, authorities express a strong preference to build their own capacity, continuity of knowledge and experience in-house.

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The use of design review and design codes is very variable but rising

Turning from the availability of skills, to what local planning authorities are doing with their design staff, the Housing Design Audit for England revealed that design codes and design review were the most effective tools for influencing the delivery of better design quality.

The Design Deficit suggests that the use of design codes continues to rise with three quarters of local authorities now having some experience of their use.  The figures for those using design review panels also continues to rise, although still less than a quarter of authorities use a panel regularly (monthly or quarterly) and two fifths use design review only very rarely or not at all.

Design codes in England 2021
Use of design codes in England 2021 (green: produced in-house or required from developers, orange: encouraged but not required, red: never used, grey: no response)
Design review in England 2021
The use of design review in England 2021 (green: used regularly, orange: use occasionally, red: never used, grey; no response)

The increased use of these tools is explained, at least in part, by the fact that they are amongst those most easily contracted out and are therefore less dependent on capacity in-house.  Only a fifth of local authorities produce codes in-house, with most authorities requiring or encouraging developers to produce them.  There has also been a decline in the number of internally managed design review panels in favour of third-party panels (managed externally to local authorities) which now account for almost half of design review.  Despite this, a lack of awareness still persists both over the value of design review to improve design outcomes and of its potential to be cost neutral to the public sector.

Looking to the future and the anticipated changes to the planning system with the associated drive to expand the use of design codes, a third of authorities plan to produce design codes themselves in the future, although this is matched by a third who don’t know how they will produce (or fund the production of) codes, particularly if they need to cover their whole administrative area.  Perhaps because of this, over half anticipate producing codes for key sites or areas of change only, with less than a third planning to produce them for their whole geographic area.

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Proactive community engagement in design is rare

A strong emphasis within the mooted changes to the planning system is the importance of community engagement in design.   On this issue authorities report being too stretched delivering their minimum statutory duties to take on community engagement themselves, and instead look to developers to do it for them.  Largely through such means, around two thirds use or require the conduct of local consultation events on major development proposals as standard.

More proactive hands-on methods of engaging communities in the design process, as opposed to simply commenting on designs already proposed, are used in just a fifth of authorities, and one in ten maintain a community panel for ongoing proactive input into their work.  Little evidence was found of innovation (technological or otherwise) in this area in order to encourage a more fundamental engagement of communities with design, although social-media outreach and online local consultation has grown during the pandemic and is now widespread.

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Design guidance is valued, but design training languishes

Finally the survey covered key inputs into raising design ambitions locally.  On this front, following the cull of such materials in 2012, Nationally produced guidance on design is again playing an important role in guiding local decision-making and is used by the vast majority of authorities.  The new National Design Guide is the foremost source here, and is being used in addition to local design guidance of various types which is being used by almost three quarters of local planning authorities to guide their design decision-making.

While national guidance is seen as helpful in setting clearer national ambitions, this is often not being translated into a local commitment to raise standards of design, with, for example, training budgets being slashed.  Consequently, whilst the majority of non-design officers in planning authorities have access to some form of ongoing design training, this is typically focussed on raising awareness about design rather than on developing design skills.  On the political side, almost half of councillors serving on planning committees receive no formal training on design, and of those that do, typically this is basic as part of a general induction to planning.  Today, very few councils have a designated design or place champion to promote design quality across the authority at large.

Does it matter?

England is a country blessed with more than its fair share of highly skilled architects, urban designers and landscape architects, and one might be tempted to ask, does it matter if they are not employed in local authorities.  The answer is, yes, emphatically it does.

As well as providing expertise directly into the processes of regulatory decision-making, having design expertise in-house within local government is a prerequisite for building a local culture of design quality, generally raising expectations on design, and thus ensuring that developers employ good architects, urban designers and landscape architects in order to get necessary consents.

This in turn ensures that design quality is taken seriously from strategic decision-making through to the detailed design decisions on individual planning applications and their implementation.  It can facilitate proactive, creative, design-led planning, a culture of community engagement, and enable the operation of design review and training within the authority, thus bringing the learning in-house also.

Reviewing the latest evidence, whilst the decline in design skills seems to have stabilised, the availability of urban design skills remains 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.  Early 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.  We have a long way to go!

What should we do?

To help get there, The design deficit concludes with a wide range of recommendations.  Amongst those for government is the need to 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.  Of course everyone is asking for more resources just now, but it is difficult to overemphasise that, without this necessary investment in design skills, the proposed changes to the planning system will be all but impossible to deliver.

The Government has already committed to establish an Office for Place to take some of this agenda forward, and the report recommends that an early priority of the new entity should be the establishment of 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.  It might develop a national charette programme through which effective but efficient methods for engaging communities in design are developed and promoted.

For Local government, the recommendations include the obvious conclusion that all 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.

Over time, this final recommendation would roughly double the numbers of design specialist staff working in local planning authorities across the country.  This would represent a minimum body of expertise from which to build a new culture of design.  It will require an acceleration in recruitment many times the snail’s pace currently being achieved.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


July 2021