Context 172 - June 2022

26 C O N T E X T 1 7 2 : J U N E 2 0 2 2 has been highlighted by the PLACE Alliance, the Urban Design Group and the Design Council in a joint research report entitled The Design Deficit (July 2021). This showed that of 235 English local authorities, three quarters employed no architectural advisers. Furthermore, the research found that many authorities that had ambitions to enhance their design capacity had been frustrated by funding difficulties and the inability to compete with the private sector. Less than a quarter of authorities were found to use a design review panel regularly and, while the use of design codes was seen to be increasing, a third of authorities did not know how they would produce or fund the production of codes, particularly if they needed to cover whole authority areas. With regard to upskilling, the research found that while the majority of non-design officers in planning authorities had access to some form of ongoing design training, this was typically focussed on raising awareness about design rather than on developing design skills. Consequently, it would seem that the shortage of design skills in local government could well fetter the realisation of the government’s ambitions with regard to improving the design of new development. A further concern has been highlighted in a research report by theWest of England Combined Authority and UWE Bristol entitled Design – the whittling away of wonderful ideas: post-consent and the diminution of design quality (April 2021). This found that the way in which post-consent planning processes unfolded could allow for a significant decline in the overall quality of a delivered scheme. Outline permissions were shown to be particularly problematic for ensuring design quality; planning conditions did not necessarily provide a quality safeguard; and the report found that non-material and minor-material amendments were being increasingly used by developers to chip away at the original design intent of schemes. Those with design skills in local government are less likely to get involved with amendments to approved schemes or enforcement. Clearly, the best-framed design code will be undone if its principles are not upheld throughout the whole development process. Conclusions The National Design Guide and National Model Design Code are impressive and thorough documents which, with the strengthened design policies and guidance in the NPPF and PPG, provide the strongest policy and guidance basis for good design that the planning system in England has ever known. However, that does not automatically translate into welldesigned development. The Achilles heel in the government’s claim that the documents ‘will lead to beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high-quality standard of design’ would seem to be the lack of design skills and capacity in local government. If the design principles, parameters and requirements contained in design guides and codes are not properly understood by those responsible for determining planning applications, they will not raise design quality. The government’s PPG promotes the use of design review panels to assist authorities. While these can be helpful, they rely on voluntary effort, have only patchy coverage across the country, and architects on such panels can be reluctant to criticise the work of other architects or to alienate potential clients. In addition to the need for upskilling, if design quality is to be achieved on the ground, planning authorities must ensure that approved schemes are not debased by post-consent amendments and failures to enforce implementation of approved plans. With respect to conservation of the built environment, the broad-brush nature of the content of the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code is unlikely to be sufficient to address the unique nature and design subtleties of many heritage design issues relating to listed building and conservation areas, which will inevitably require a more finely grained approach. The IHBC has made a start on addressing the design skills shortage by publication of a Guidance Note on Design Sources for developing skills in design with specific regard to design in the historic environment. This is intended to provide a starting point for applicants and members wanting to upskill. Roy Lewis, a former conservation officer, educationalist and planning and heritage consultant, has been as the IHBC policy secretary since 2016. A figure from the National Model Design Code