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CABE at 10: is it doing too much?

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Once a guerrilla operator, now to some ‘unfocused and overstretched’, the architecture commission faces doubts over its effectiveness as it celebrates its first decade

As CABE celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, criticism rings in its ears from many within the profession who feel its widened remit has created an ‘unfocused and overstretched’ body that has lost sight of its original intent.

‘It was set up to look at strategic projects that could be exemplars, but now it looks at almost every project and it is doing a lot of work for the government,’ says a source, who formerly held a senior post within the commission. ‘Frankly, it is doing too much.’

Over the last decade, CABE has reviewed more than 3,000 schemes, won plaudits for overseeing an improvement in the quality of Britain’s architecture and built environment (see the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Light Touch Review 2009) and, in recent years, hit virtually all its government-set targets. As a result it has grown to employ 120 staff, with more than 400 part-time design reviewers from a growing variety of built environment disciplines. CABE also boasts a much greater capacity to research and gather evidence to back up its campaigning.

In fact, CABE’s director of campaigns and education, Matt Bell, argues that the commission – which has an annual budget of £12 million – is still too small. He stresses that its current breadth of work is vital in the quest, not just to police landmark architecture, but to get ‘good, ordinary [architecture] everywhere’.

CABE’s growing research and campaigning arm, which has produced a body of publications including Guidance on Tall Buildings (2003) and Hallmarks of a Sustainable City (2009), is justified by Bell as ‘gathering an evidence base to show clients and local authorities that bad design will come back to bite you.’

But some claim that a negative consequence of CABE’s growth has been the loss of its early reputation as a ‘guerrilla’ organisation prepared to stick its neck out. Instead, it has become too close to the government and is seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

Such criticism is rejected by Bell, who argues that CABE’s growth has strengthened its independent, campaigning voice. He cites the example of CABE’s housing design audit in 2006, ‘the first ever baseline of the quality of housebuilding at a national level’, which showed that the design of 82 per cent of homes being built in the UK was not good enough. The audit upset a lot of people within government, adds Bell, but it led to targets for housing design quality.

Bell also points to the ‘phenomenal success’ of the commission’s public space arm, CABE Space, and the fact that the governments of the USA, France, Germany, Singapore and Japan have beaten a path to CABE’s door seeking advice on setting up similar organisations. These countries have been impressed at how the prospect of a grilling from some of Britain’s top built environment professionals at design review has frightened developer-clients into choosing their architects more carefully.

CABE commissioners in 2002

CABE commissioners in 2002

‘There is a lot more care taken now on choice of architect than 10 years ago, and CABE has accelerated that process,’ says Rab Bennetts, director of Bennetts Associates. ‘Practices also do more design reviewing in-house as a result of CABE.’

But Bennetts adds that the expansion of the design review process has been counterproductive. ‘It has just got too big. It doesn’t have the resources to meet such demand and often can only do cursory reviews. At the regional level, a lot of reviews have gone wrong.’

Matt Brook, a director at Broadway Malyan, agrees: ‘The full design review works very well… however, the remote reviews, in which the design team is not present, are far less successful.’

CABE, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the RIBA and the Landscape Institute have recently updated CABE’s 2006 publication How to do Design Review, aimed at anyone who is involved in setting up or managing design review panels. But this is unlikely to appease Tim Evans, creative director at Sheppard Robson, who believes the ‘subjective’ review process is ‘seriously flawed’.

‘Objective criteria by which a scheme could be judged would be a start,’ says Evans. ‘Functional effectiveness has been subjugated to an obsession with “wow factor”. In a number of reviews we’ve had inappropriate panel attendees with no experience of the typology, scale of development, or the commercial imperatives. I’ve found specific reviews to be poorly chaired, non-interactive and patronising.’

But incoming chair Paul Finch (AJ 27.08.09), who takes up his position in December, disagrees. ‘People on panel may not know about making [a scheme] more profitable, but they do know about good design and placemaking,’ he says. ‘Evans’ comment about objectivity is absolutely wrong. We do use and publish objective criteria.’

Nevertheless, such sentiments being expressed within the profession could be dangerous for CABE at a time when it is vulnerable to government cost-cutting. And should the quango-averse Conservative party get
into power, they could shut it down altogether. CABE has launched a charm offensive on its potential Tory paymasters, claiming that it is essential to help deliver the Conservative plan for bottom-up ‘community-led housing design’, especially through its programme in schools to promote ‘visual literacy’.

Accordingly, the Tories have recently made positive comments about CABE – most notably that it was ‘good bacteria’ – but any review could lead to big changes.

Yet Evans maintains that CABE has become ‘another bloated, ineffective government’ that has strayed from its original purpose. ‘It is time for an independent review, not like the last one, which was self-funded, self-directed and, quite frankly, self-satisfied,’ he says.

Finch admits that there is room for improvement and that there has been ‘some overstretch’ in the last 18 months. But he concludes: ‘The difficulty for any advisory organisation is that the more you do, the more focus increases. It leaves us slightly between a rock and hard place in that respect. [For instance] the government was very anxious for us to engage in a public space programme.’

He adds: ‘[However] we do need to strike a balance between strategic long-term intervention and day-to-day activities… We can and should take stock of this, especially where resources are likely to be trimmed.’


CABE’s first decade: 1999-2009

  • 1 September 1999 CABE opens for business with Stuart Lipton as its first chairman. Its first big design review is the redevelopment of Princesshay in Exeter
  • 2000 John Rouse becomes CABE’s first chief executive. CABE launches the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award
  • 2001 CABE launches the Building for Life partnership with the housebuilding industry. Its first research report, The Value of Urban Design, is launched
  • 2002 CABE launches its Streets of Shame campaign
  • 2003 CABE Space is formed
  • 2004 John Sorrell replaces Stuart Lipton as chair. CABE’s urban design summer school is launched
  • 2005 CABE moves to a Richard Seifert-designed tower (pictured top) in Covent Garden, London
  • 2006 CABE’s housing design audit finds the design of eight out of 10 private homes is not good enough
  • 2007 CABE begins reviewing all significant school proposals
  • 2008 CABE begins managing a £45 million programme to boost cultural regeneration in coastal towns
  • 2009 CABE launches the Engaging Places campaign with English Heritage to boost learning about public spaces
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Readers' comments (1)

  • AJ in 2005

    Commons adds to CABE pressure
    10 March, 2005 | By AJ ED

    CABE has come under fire again this week following the publication of a parliamentary report into its activities that attacks much of its day-to-day work.

    The ODPM House of Commons select committee, chaired by Clive Betts, has produced a report that questions the current value of CABE's design review and the perception of commissioners' conflicts of interest.

    The document, which was drawn up after investigation at the end of last year, also hits out at CABE's attitude to the historic built environment, claiming that it fails to recognise the importance of context.

    'While the new chairman [John Sorrell] is not a developer, development interests are still too heavily represented on CABE, which may skew its priorities in favour of new developments rather than conservation,' the report says.

    'There are major concerns that the quality of consideration on some schemes is cursory and does not appear to be based on any clear set of criteria. CABE should consider fewer schemes more thoroughly,' it continues.

    The report also calls for reform of the current design review system. 'The pin-up sessions, when the design review chairman and a member of CABE staff look at drawings of schemes, should no longer take place,' it goes on.

    The report, 'The Role and Effectiveness of CABE', also recommends that the Design Review Committee should meet in public, rather than behind closed doors.

    And it goes on to discuss the historic context of schemes. 'CABE's remit is to consider the design quality of new developments, but it appears to neglect the historic location in which schemes are located, so seriously reducing the validity of its comments,' the report adds.

    However, CABE chief executive Richard Simmons said that the report was not completely critical. 'If you read the whole report, the committee has said how important CABE's role is and that we are dealing with the audit,' he told the AJ.

    'But if there are good ideas in there, we are always happy to listen. You always expect a select committee report to give constructive criticism and it would be churlish of me not to listen to it since CABE also gives open and constructive criticism.

    'I don't agree that the value of our advice is in danger of being undermined,' he added. 'If that were the case we wouldn't get large numbers of customers telling us how satisfied they were - and there is no slacking off of people taking our advice.

    'It is not CABE's policy to promote new buildings for the sake of it - we promote good design,' Simmons added.

    by Ed Dorrell

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