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Where next for CABE?

With the imminent appointment of a new chair and the ongoing select committee investigation into its work, Ed Dorrell looks at the way forward for everyone's favourite design watchdog

Think back to less than 18 months ago.

Everything looked extremely rosy in the garden of CABE. With a growing staff, growing influence and a property and architecture industry strongly displaying its support, the future was extremely bright for one of New Labour's most successful non-governmental organisations.

Oh how times have changed. Bring yourself back to late 2004 and the situation has been transformed almost beyond recognition. And not really for the best.

In the intervening period CABE has been subject to the now-famous audit of conflicts of interest, it is also being investigated by a parliamentary select committee and Stuart Lipton, the chairman forced out less than six months ago, has insinuated a lack of support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Add to this growing speculation about the replacement chair, and it becomes increasingly clear that the design watchdog is in something of a state of flux - even if Chris Smith does take over early in the new year.

But these supposed problems can also represent an opportunity if treated correctly by Smith or whoever it is. They come at an interesting time for the commission as it reaches a point of maturity.

The more one looks at CABE's current position, the more it becomes clear that it would have to face up to a series of difficult questions whether it had been subject to these inquiries or not.

Primarily, and perhaps most urgently, Smith - let's assume that it will be him - needs to decide how big CABE should become. Does it want to be a lumbering giant that assesses thousands and thousands of planning applications every year, that has hundreds of staff members dotted all around the country in a series of regional offices? Or does it want to maintain its current size and become more of a strategic organisation aiming to influence the government, developers and the public through a more publicitysyle approach?

Both options have pros and cons but the answer will not come easily to the new man in charge.

Another of the major challenges will inevitably be CABE's association with the government. Attending a special Architecture Club event, where CABE's future was debated at the end of last week, it became increasingly apparent that the design watchdog would have to be careful not to be seen as 'yet another government department'. One very clear issue that cropped up time and time again was the vast number of publications that are produced on an almost weekly basis.

This seems to be a reasonable criticism. Observing CABE's work from a neutral perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects is its seemingly endless string of brochures and advisory documents, with language couched in terms even Alistair Campbell would be proud of. It must certainly be careful, most Architecture Club members seemed to agree, not to seem aloof and patronising.

An alternative way of avoiding being perceived as a Labour poodle would be to really take on the government over the Private Finance Initiative. This would be an interesting move as it would put the commission and its staff in open conflict with its paymasters in government - certainly a high- risk strategy. The greatest benefit, excluding the possible improvements in school and hospital design, would be the perception among stakeholders in the architecture profession of independence.

However, alienating the treasury and, ultimately, that bruiser of a political operator Gordon Brown, could leave CABE dangerously isolated from those that hold the purse strings. This policy could clearly damage all those involved with staff at the commission's Waterloo Tower headquarters and, eventually, lead to the whole thing being wound up all together.

Perhaps the most insightful comments on CABE's future at the Architecture Club debate came from Francis Golding, the former head of CABE's predecessor, the Royal Fine Art Commission. 'Should the new chairman expand the organisation or does he simply want to run a ginger group? This seems to be the most important question, ' he told the meeting.

'It is, however, important to understand that you cannot have a presence in every town because there is simply not the money. And even if there were, there would still be the important question of whether you want to be a bureaucracy or this ginger group. There needs to be a decision about changing priorities, ' he added.

So there you have it. Whoever does get appointed to the big job has an important decision to make. A massive bureaucratic governmental addition to the planning system, or a lightweight campaign and publicity machine? The choice will not be easy.

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