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Light at the end of CABE's tunnel

As far as CABE was concerned, 2004 was its 'annus horribilis'. However, deputy chairman Paul Finch finds optimism for the future amid this year's many troubles

In March 2004, CABE's long honeymoon with the government and media came to an abrupt halt. 'Bias allegation hits CABE, ' screamed a headline in the AJ, echoed elsewhere.

One complaint, which helped to trigger off an independent audit of our governance, came from an obsessive who bombarded staff with requests for information of everincreasing complexity - more than 70 in six months - involving hundreds of hours of staff time digging back into files stretching back five years. His complaint ostensibly concerned connections between our chairman, Stuart Lipton, and other commissioners who had, or might have had, a commercial relationship with his company, Stanhope.

The reality was that the complainant wanted to block a redevelopment proposal by Stanhope of South Kensington Underground Station and adjacent properties. He was part of a local group formed to oppose the development, but the idea that he himself might be conflicted doesn't seem to have occurred. He asked to remain anonymous.

A second, more serious, complaint came at the same time from a significant public body: Croydon council. Not surprisingly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) felt compelled to order an inquiry. The council, and in particular one Councillor Dennis, claimed that CABE gave a supportive design review to a proposal by Stanhope (influenced by who its chairman was). In fact, CABE reviewed two schemes in Croydon for the same site: one by Stanhope with a design team headed by Foster, the other by the council with developer Arrowcroft and architect Michael Aukett. CABE did not score the schemes against each other, but reviewed and commented on each separately. In both cases there was a welcome in principle for the proposal, but then some criticisms.

Croydon eventually rejected the Stanhope scheme and it went to appeal - where it lost.

Among the key reasons for the inspector's refusal were criticisms that CABE had made of the proposal! In other words, far from giving our chairman a sweetheart deal, CABE contributed to the scheme's refusal. But from the time of the complaints, the knives were out for our chairman. His development activities were no secret, and indeed his experience of the world of property was a key reason for his appointment by the DCMS. Yet suddenly, inside CABE, it felt as though somehow we and our chairman were at some sort of fault.

In the event, our independent audit found no evidence of wrong-doing, and found that we were generally in the clear. There were various minor recommendations about certain procedural details, most of which have been adopted, but none of which would have changed the way we dealt with South Kensington and Croydon.

There was, however, a sting in the tail of the auditor's report. Because of the potential for perceptions of conflicts of interest, the auditor felt it was no longer appropriate to have an active property developer as our chair.

The DCMS acted with alacrity, according to architecture minister Lord McIntosh, to protect CABE's reputation. Our chairman had to go, which struck some of us as over-hasty.

It didn't help that our inspirational and worldly-wise chief executive, Jon Rouse, had by this stage already left CABE to run the Housing Corporation. This was the only time since our creation when commissioners and senior staff had (briefly) a thoroughly miserable time. Stuart, I know, felt deeply wounded by his treatment, having given such long service to government, but put a brave face on things and conducted his last AGM (no minister present) in July. We had a jolly commissioners' lunch in L'Etoile (auditor please note: we paid for ourselves), and said goodbye to our brilliant founding father.

From that low point, CABE rapidly recovered its momentum. We had already appointed our new chief executive, Richard Simmons, before Stuart left, and he came through what must have been an unexpected baptism of fire with flying colours. To round the year off, the DCMS gave us a new chairman, John Sorrell, who is experienced in the ways both of the design world and of Whitehall. And we had a very reasonable hearing from MPs on the ODPM select committee last week; they had given some of our critics a dose of their own medicine at an earlier hearing, which was enjoyable to witness.

Things, in short, are looking up. I enjoyed my few months as interim chairman of CABE - but wish that circumstances had never made them necessary.

Paul Finch is deputy chairman of CABE and editorial director of The Architects' Journal.

He succeeds to the editorship of The Architectural Review in March 2005

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