Design skills in Local Authorities in England

This 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 between 2012 and 2017.

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 was 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 looked at approaches to design review: if and how frequently they are used, who provides the services and who manages it.

The findings demonstrated that urban design skills and capacity within local planning authorities were (and continue to be add link to project no. 4) woefully low and declining and that these gaps were not being filled by the patchy, albeit increasing, use of design review. The research showed that 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.

A Place Alliance report supported by the Urban Design Group (ADD HYPERLINK)