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‘Phoenix project’: CABE battles to resurrect quango in new form

Senior commission staff are in top-level talks to resurrect CABE in a new guise once it is officially wound up in March next year

‘We are working on a “phoenix project” to keep our core activities alive in some shape or form and hopefully we’ll have a clear direction by the end of the year,’ said CABE chair Paul Finch. ‘The situation is fluid and we are in ongoing talks with the government.’

Last week the commission’s official government sponsor, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), saw its £5 million annual funding for CABE axed in the Spending Review. The quango’s other major funder, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), will also remove support worth around £7 million a year.

The shock move spells the end for CABE in its current form, and has left the future of the 11-year-old organisation and its 125 staff in doubt.

Describing the DCMS decision as ‘barbaric’, CABE founder and Labour peer Alan Howarth has tabled a question in the House of Lords next month to ask the government how it will promote good design in the built environment.

Anna Liu, co-founder of Tonkin Liu, said: ‘Removing CABE was short-sighted, cynical, and purely political. Architecture in the public realm needs benchmarks and eminent champions, to achieve value for money and uncompromising design quality.’

Design director of Berman Guedes Stretton, Alan Berman agreed: ‘The prospects for the future of a quality living environment look bleak.

‘The demise of CABE is yet another sign that this government neither understands nor cares for the quality of our built environment.’

Secretary of state for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, has pledged to work with CABE and the CLG to look at ‘future arrangements’.

Yet there is no guarantee the government would back the rebirth of the commission, with the CLG, led by anti-quango communities secretary Eric Pickles, unlikely to want another body on its books.

Re-emerging as an independent advisor to government, perhaps in the form of a trust, is believed to be among the preferred options being considered by those at the commission. Even so, without DCMS support, it is understood CABE’s previous educational role will not be taken forward.

Finch said a new CABE would likely focus on design review, enabling projects and advising on public space.

Neil Deely, co-founder of Metropolitan Workshop, a member of the national design review panel and a CABE enabler, said: ‘Alternative funding could be sourced through several options; diversifying CABE’s remit to include the private sector, adding a levy to planning fees, committing local authorities to an annual subscription for CABE’s services.

‘CABE’s growth has demonstrated a huge need for the advice it gives. This is reflected in the plethora of requests from private clients, local authorities, planning departments and other public bodies who feel that they do not possess the skills or the resources that CABE do.’

With the emergence of the coalition government’s Big Society and localism agendas, this demand is expected to increase.

CLG has already said it would like to see any CABE successor as ‘a more industry-led, local partner-based’ organisation.

Roger Hawkins, director of Hawkins\Brown said: ‘With CABE going and localism the new mantra, it leaves accountability for implementing and designing many of our new buildings and public spaces being passed down to local politicians. Ahead, I see fertile ground for poor thinking and low aspiration.’

This will not be helped by the difficult prospects facing the Architecture Centre Network which, as a result of the DCMS decision, lost its £900,000 a year handout from CABE. Bridget Sawyers, the network’s chief executive, said the loss of cash was bound to affect the 22-strong group of independent centres.

She said: ‘With cuts across all public funding, and in this climate, it would be wrong to think that architecture centres can survive with just commercial funding and partnerships, however we are a network of local organisations who can deliver on much of the localism and Big Society agenda – but will still need some financial support.’

The prospects for CABE’s eight ‘affiliated’ regional design panels covering England are also uncertain, with the majority of them receiving funding from the soon-to-be-abolished Regional Development Agencies.

Other options for CABE include a pay-per-review for its design review services, however, that has been ruled out by Finch, and developers have baulked at the idea.

Andy Dainty, director of property development company Urbo said: ‘Developers who care about design already pay for good designers – so it’s paying twice. Those that don’t will fight it as another tax.’

It is also rumoured that the commission’s 323-strong CABE enabling team could be subsumed into the Homes and Community Agency (HCA).

Although sources say the move was a ‘possibility but not ideal’, Chris Brown, chief executive of developer Igloo said: ‘One of HCA’s four statutory objectives is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and good design in England, so, as the agency reorganises to support local communities, they will be looking to draw in the best skills they can find from CABE and elsewhere.’

A merger with English Heritage (EH) will almost certainly not happen. Nevertheless, Scott Lawrie, principal of Will Alsop at RMJM is baffled as to why EH has been kept, albeit heavily cut, and CABE not. He said: ‘“One has to ask why English Heritage, which fulfils a similar role with regard to historic buildings, has been saved - quite rightly I would add.Surely there is benefit in keeping both. To axe one and not the other does not really make sense. It would have been much more sensible to merge CABE and English Heritage, saving on administrative costs while retaining their dual core duties

‘Everybody understands and agrees that the government needs to rebalance the deficit but decisions have been made without any explanation as to how the functions of organisations such as CABE will be provided in the future. Of course we all have to tighten our belts, but you don’t sell your belt and let your trousers fall to the floor.’

However not everyone would mourn the loss of CABE. John Woolstencroft of Stock Woolstencroft said: ‘CABE’s last-minute contributions have proved both disruptive and destructive, hence we would not miss them.

‘Design advice is better invested within Local Authority design panels with whom Architects can have a constructive dialogue from the outset of a project ’

However Roger Zogolovitch, architect and chairman of developer Lake Estates, said: ‘CABE has helped architects and developers by making the planners more comfortable with new architecture and its impact on its surrounding townscape. Returning to the default setting of pitched roofs and ersatz Victorian will reverse all that effort and example.’

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