Savills plc

07/27/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/27/2021 08:18

Delivering Beauty and the Design Skills Deficit

Last week the National Model Design Codes and the National Planning Framework were published. These, together with the National Design Guide, provide the detailed guidance needed to deliver this vision.

This is all too needed. The 2020 Housing Audit demonstrated that many of the places that have been built in the UK recently fail to meet good design standards, let alone beauty. Around half of the schemes audited were rated as being mediocre with another quarter failing to meet the national planning policy on good design.

This article identifies drivers of change towards high quality design, and practical steps that could be taken to achieve it. The starting point for this is looking at what's caused failure in the past.

Skills deficit within Local Authorities

The delivery of this vision for beauty is reliant on a coordinated response from all in the private and public sector, but do the public sector have the skills to deliver this? Over the last decade local planning authorities have faced a 42% reduction in the funding for planning teams. This has led to a significant loss of capacity, with especially in-house specialisms such as design, architecture and landscape architecture fairing particularly badly.

The Place Alliance published a report last week call the 'Design Deficit' that reviews the design skills within English Local Authorities. This reveals that two fifths of local planning authorities do not have access to urban design advice; almost two thirds no landscape advice; three quarters no architectural advice. This means that in many local authority areas, there is no design expertise, which will impact on the ability to ask for good design, educate the community members and planning officers and proactively lead on design codes and planning guidance.

In some Local Authorities this skills gap is in paces being filled by external consultants and design review panels, especially in the production of design guidance, frameworks and design codes. The design review process can also have a major impact on design quality. While it is really positive that these independent panels are being widely use, they work best where it combines with an established in-house design capacity. Unfortunately, in many areas it is being used as a substitute for in house design skills.

Levelling up: a driver for change

Levelling up is high on the Government's agenda. Normally it is discussed in terms of jobs and economic development, but health and quality of the environment are also important here. The 2020 Housing Design Audit found a clear relationship between affluence and design. Poorly designed schemes were ten times more likely to be built in the least affluent areas than in affluent areas and well-designed schemes were four times more likely to be built in more affluent areas than the least affluent areas.

It is important that all local planning authorities have the have the confidence to ask for good design and the link between low quality design in lower income communities is clearly unacceptable. Investment in these areas must be combined with a culture change within Local Planning Authorities. Officers, members and senior management all need to buy into the vision to see the value and make funds available to invest in training and specialist staff.

Front loading the planning process

A great part of the resources in the English Planning system is focused on Development Management, where the Local Planning Authority reactively responds to a planning application, rather than proactively establishes policy frameworks, design briefs and design codes for good design. This is an area which is clearly receiving lots of thought from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Many of our European neighbours have a more proactive system where design codes and B-Plans led by planners guide the form of structure of future development. Design coding will have a significant change in the way the planning system is structured, and we are likely to see a front-loading of the design guide process. The preparation of design codes requires a wide range of multi-disciplinary skills. Currently most Local Planning Authorities do not have the resources to prepare them and are reliant on either landowners to lead the process or external consultants.

A shift to this system may lead to redistribution of resources within planning departments, with a greater focus on proactive planning such as design briefs and codes and reduced capacity within development management. A co-ordinated approach is needed not just within the planning and design teams of local councils, but across those departments dealing with highways, services and maintenance.

Cause for Optimism

The Ministry of Housing, Environment and Communities are putting a clear focus on delivering high quality places. While there is an acknowledgement that there is a design skills shortage in many Local Planning Authorities, there are many things which can and should be done to support change.

Increasing the proportion of urban designers, architects and landscape architects within Local Planning Authorities will be important as will training and empowering planning officers, as trained built environment specialists who have the confidence to guide the design process.

However, a fundamental culture change is equally important - Councillors and Senior Management teams have to believe in and support the beauty agenda. To quote Nicholas Boys Smith, the Chair for the Office for Place 'The British Planning system didn't used to be afraid to aspire for the best for everyone, and we have lost that confidence to aim for the sky. As a society we need to aspire to make great places where the body can prosper and the soul can sing'.

Read Savills response to the new Office of Place