UDG Event Review

The Design Deficit - Skills Survey Report

Robert Huxford

In 2018 the Place Alliance, supported by funds from the UDG, conducted a survey of Design Skills in local authorities, finding a serious design skills shortage. 

“Almost half of local planning authorities had no dedicated in-house design capacity at all.”

The survey report warned that

“the absence of design expertise locally will result in a new generation of substandard development.”

The Place Alliance went on to assess the impacts of the skills shortage with the Housing Design Audit for England  published in 2019. Over 140 new housing developments across England were assessed: they were overwhelmingly ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’. 

“One in five of the audited schemes should have been refused planning permission outright. The design of many others should have been improved before relevant permissions were granted.” 

Worryingly, poorly designed developments were getting through on appeal. 


A second survey was published 22 July 2021, the launch hosted by the Urban Design Group.




Urban design and related skills in local authorities have stabilised, they remain 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. Signs of the growing use of design review and design codes are positive, but the majority of authorities still do not make use of design review.  Recruitment of design officers into local government remains challenging, proactive community engagement in design is minimal, and design related training remains basic.



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

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 use panels only very rarely or not at all.

The use of design codes also continues to rise with three quarters of local authorities having some 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


  • A ratio of design specialist staff to other professional planning staff of 1:10 is a reasonable aspiration to work to
  • Amend national planning policy to make early and independent design review mandatory for all major developments
  • Ensure the revised Manual for Streets is in a form that can be directly adopted by local authorities and used by staff who lack design training
  • To retain staff and build a stronger culture of design quality, bring proactive design thinking into the mainstream of planning decision-making from strategic thinking, to regeneration, to development delivery

Robert Huxford is the Director of the Urban Design Group


Katja Stille  UDG Executive Chair | Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design


Laura Alvarez  Nottingham City Council, Senior Principal Urban Design and Conservation Officer


Matthew Carmona  The Bartlett, UCL and Chair of the Place Alliance

Joanna Averley  Chief Planner MHCLG

Nicholas Boys-Smith  Create Streets and Office for Place Transition Board Chair

Alan Stones  Former editor Essex Design Guide and Head of the Essex Design Service

See event page for more info and recording of presentations