Amidst the clamour for local authorities to give planning permission for new homes more easily and more speedily, there is thankfully a mechanism for upholding the quality of new dwellings and their associated public realm: Design Review.
The most enlightened developers employ clever designers to unlock the potential from unpromising sites. The solutions are often innovative by necessity, setting welcome new standards in the design and construction industry. Volume house builders, by contrast, are often accused of holding back difficult sites and pushing forward with easier ones where they can apply their formulaic roll-outs. Not only does this result in cookie-cutter ‘anywhere architecture’, it also often involves loss of green. As I wrote in a previous article for Property Chronicle (‘Fields of Least Resistance’), ‘brownfield’ redevelopment sites often involve removal of previous structures, or are contaminated from previous use, which adds costs for the developer. This is why our fields are being turned to brick and tarmac (if they are not already covered in solar panels).
Local authority planning officers are increasingly under pressure, either from a pile-up of applications, lack of resource, lack of expert knowledge – or all three. Add to that the departure of in-house design officers and we are in a bad place. So, the idea of out-sourcing qualitative design assessment for large, complex or counter-policy applications has led to a relative new industry.
Design review panels already existed inside a few forward-thinking authorities and agencies in the 1990’s, but the format was introduced in a widespread way in 1999 with the formation of CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). CABE has been regarded as a successor to The Royal Fine Art Commission, but it was born more directly out of the government’s Urban Task Force, founded in 1998 and chaired by Sir Richard Rogers. Defined as ‘The government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space in England’, CABE’s role was “…to influence and inspire the people making decisions about the built environment’. It championed well-designed buildings, spaces and places, ran public campaigns and provided expert advice. Initially funded by both the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, CABE covered a lot of interests and had sixteen Commissioners.
One of CABE’s many functions was to offer expert independent assessments of building schemes at an early stage. Its design review panel consisted of a pool of expert advisors drawn from the architectural, built environment and creative communities who reviewed schemes which had a significant impact on the local environment, or were of national importance, or which set standards for the future. CABE was known as a ‘non-statutory consultee’ in the planning process, meaning that planning departments should heed CABE’s advice when making decisions, but were not obliged to act on it. Moreover, prior to a formal planning application being made, this advice remained out of the public realm.
CABE was also responsible for producing many seminal illustrated publications, including one simply called ‘Design Review’ which provided guidance for both sides on how to get the best out of the process. Looking back at this booklet now, the people in the photos may have aged a bit, and there are definitely fewer ties these days, but the central message is still intact. After all, good design is good design, and as Paul Finch, then Chairman of the Design Review Committee wrote in his introduction to this booklet:
“We believe that assessing quality is to a large extent an objective process. Ultimately, of course, some questions come down to matters of individual taste and preference. It is not often, however, that questions of this kind are important in deciding whether a project, judged in the round, is a good one”.
In other words, the personal views of a panel member are usually outweighed by the process of fair critique. From my own experience, I have to agree. Whether involved in design review or even awards judging, I have found that consensus usually breaks out amongst a multi-disciplinary panel after robust discussion in an open-minded atmosphere.