REPORT: Design skills and design governance approaches in English local authorities

A report by Pace Alliance and the Urban Design Group presents the findings of a short survey of urban design skills and approaches within England’s local planning authorities, and how they have changed over time. A response rate of 71% was achieved – 235 local authorities.

This report looks again at the question of urban design skills in local authorities, the lack of which numerous reports over many years, including that of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission have highlighted as a key barrier to raising the general standard of our built environment across the country. It comes at a time when the Government has placed the achievement of better quality design at the centre of its aspirations for a reformed planning process. In particular, new policy and guidance from government is challenging local authorities and developers to strive to deliver “high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places” while the preparation of design codes are being advocated to achieve this..

The question is, are local authorities in a position to deliver on these aspirations?

Reviewing the evidence, it is possible to conclude that whilst urban design and related skills in local authorities have stabilised, they remain at a low ebb and far below where they needto be in order to address the ambitious national agenda on raising the design quality of new development. 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.

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 IS THE CRITICAL PUBLIC SECTOR DESIGN DEFICIT. The findings in summary:


  • Nationally, the numbers of urban designers and architects in local planning authorities has stabilised, although availability of the landscape expertise has declined:
    • two fifths of local planning authorities still have no access to urban design advice,
    • almost two thirds no landscape advice
    • three quarters no architectural advice
  • Sharing of posts, use of temporary staff and coverage by non-specialists hides the true extent of the deficit
  • There is a significant increase in the use of external consultants and agency staff to try to fill the gaps, with two fifths of local authorities attempting this. The figure rises to 60% in relation to the production of proactive design guidance and frameworks, and 70% for design codes
  • Design review is often seen as a means of filling the design skills gaps, rather than a means to challenge and supplement in-house design capacity


  • There are now, on average, 1.7 design experts per local planning authority across England, an increase from 1.6 in 2017, or some 30 designers across the country
  • Over half of that growth has happened in the relatively few authorities that have larger design teams with only 10 local authorities now having design expertise when previously they did not
  • Whilst a minority of local authorities have made a strategic investment in a place quality team, many authorities who feel the acute need for design input into their decision-making are unable to secure it because of funding difficulties
  • Authorities overwhelmingly describe recruitment of urban design staff as ‘challenging’,notably regarding their ability to complete with the private sector
  • Whilst the employment of temporary staff can help to smooth bumps in workload, on the whole authorities would prefer to build their own capacity, continuity of knowledge and experience in-house


  • The use of design review continues to rise and national coverage to improve, although still:
    • less than a quarter of authorities use a panel regularly (monthly or quarterly)
    • two fifths using panels only very rarely or not at all
  • A lack of awareness still persists about the value of design review to improve design outcomes and of its potential to be cost neutral to local authorities
  • A decline in the number of internally managed panels has occurred in favour of third-party panels (managed externally to local authorities) which now account for which now account for around two thirds of design review
  • The use of design codes also continues to rise with three quarters of local authorities havingsome experience of their use
  • Most local authorities who use them either require or encourage developers to produce codes, with only 14% produced in-house
  • In the future:
    • a third of authorities plan to produce design codes in-house
    • 7% aim to commission consultants to do the work
    • a third don’t know how they will produce (or fund the production of) codes,particularly if they need to cover whole authorities
  • Over half of authorities anticipate producing codes for key sites or areas of change and only 30% for their entire authority.


  • Authorities report being too stretched in delivering their minimum statutory duties to take on community engagement themselves
  • Beyond statutory consultation, around two thirds of authorities use or require the conduct of local consultation events on major development proposals as standard
  • More proactive hands-on means of engaging communities in the design process, as opposed to simply commenting on designs already proposed, take place in a fifth of authorities, whilst only one in ten maintain a community panel
  • Typically authorities look to developers to conduct local consultation events and any hands-on engagement on design
  • The use of social media outreach (used in a quarter of authorities) and online local consultation has grown during the pandemic. Beyond this, there is little evidence oftechnological approaches being used to encourage a more fundamental engagement of communities with design


  • Nationally produced guidance on design plays an important role in guiding local decision-making and is used by the vast majority of authorities. Its importance has
  • now been re-established following the cull of such materials in 2012
  • Almost three quarters of local planning authorities use local design guidance of various types to guide their design decision-making, sometimes shared across
  • authorities
  • The majority of non-design officers in planning authorities have access to some form of ongoing design training. With budget cuts eating into training budgets, this is
  • typically focussed on raising awareness about design rather than on developing design skills
  • Councillors receive some informal, basic design training in just over half of local authorities
  • Few councils have a designated design or place champion to promote design quality across the authority at large.

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Last Updated on May 19, 2022 by Kingston Society