CABE'S CAPABILITIES STRETCHED
Name any recent landmark London development and you can be sure that CABE's ngerprints are all over it.
Renzo Piano's New London Bridge House and Foster's Gherkin are cases in point.
But for every Piano or Foster masterpiece to drool over, there are thousands of less notable but equally worthy projects that CABE is unable to look at due to nancial shortages.
The paucity of CABE'S input is being felt most acutely in historically underprivileged boroughs like Southwark, Hackney and Haringey. It is in places like these that massive government investment in urban regeneration is fuelling an unprecedented boom in large-scale development.
A prime example is Farrells' new tower, Eagle House, in Shoreditch, east London, which won the green light from Hackney's planning department in April. Project co-ordinator Alberta Matin is worried about the fact that CABE - one of its statutory consultees - has politely but rmly declined pleas for advice on such a signicant development.
Matin says: 'The response we received in this case was: 'We are consulted about more schemes than we have the resources to deal with and, unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any further assistance on this scheme'.' She adds: 'We have experienced this response on other schemes as well, which is a problem. We mean to look to our neighbouring boroughs to learn their experiences but expect this will be similar to what we are encountering.'
It's no secret that CABE's design review panel has been starved of resources since its inception. It has but 30 experts to its name who - at a push - can formally comment on about 75 major schemes a year.
Given that there are 300 UK local authorities processing anything between 15,000 and 20,000 large-scale planning applications in 12 months - the bulk of them in London - it is all too obvious the panel is a victim of its own success.
Arguably it can be forgiven, then, for cherrypicking prestige projects. After all, it is this type of scheme that will have the greatest impact on the London townscape and the psyche of its 10 million-odd inhabitants.
However, it is the less amboyant schemes that, says Adrian Dennis, a planning team leader at Southwark, are in dire need of CABE's golden words. He cites Allford Hall Monaghan Morris' Barnham Street commercial development, which met with a similar response to Eagle House.
'They were advised that CABE is not a design agency to advise all developers on their applications but has to be selective due to its limited resources, ' says Dennis.
'Big projects will have a major impact on the London townscape and the public so should be looked at very carefully by everyone including CABE. I get the impression that there are currently so many major applications that are of interest to CABE, it has to turn down the more routine or mundane type of development.
But many would say that mundane schemes are in more need of design input, ' he continues.
As a rule CABE assesses individual planning departments' own ability to conduct design reviews before wading in with advice. And it is this discretionary approach that could, it seems, be misinterpreted as indifference.
'Westminster has one of the best staffed planning departments so it doesn't tend to bother CABE and vice versa, ' says CABE's former design review director Peter Stewart.
But, in truth, Westminster deals with fewer large-scale planning applications simply because so much of the borough is shielded from development by strict conservation orders.
A solution to the problem could lie in the creation of a regional design review panel for London. Like CABE, such a body would need to be transparently independent and not simply a poodle of the Mayor. Crucially, it would require sufcient kudos to persuade design experts to give up their time, adds Stewart.
'Local authority design panels would not attract this kind of expertise. The answer lies in establishing a review body for the whole of the capital, ' he says. 'Hackney and Southwark should be directing these concerns about resources to central government, not back at CABE.' A potential template is the Inspire East design review and enabling panel, set to be launched next month, which will offer advice on projects in north-east England. It will be chaired by Ben van Bruggen, Hepher Dixon urban design director, who insists any London review team should complement CABE rather than act as a substitute.
'A well-run and wellfunded London panel would go some way to taking pressure away from CABE. But again it will only be capable of reviewing a limited number of projects, ' says van Bruggen.
In the immediate term CABE remains caught between a rock and a hard place. In reality its design panel has never been stronger. Yet it can only continue to scratch away at the growing mountain of large-scale planning proposals unless the government intervenes with serious cash.