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CABE’s new chair must refocus its mission

Leader: CABE’s new chair must refocus its mission if it is to regain the profession’s confidence

There is a changing of the guard at the top of the profession. Both Paul Finch and Ruth Reed are continuity candidates. Finch was there at the beginning of CABE’s story, and Reed has modest ambitions for her presidency at the RIBA, praising Sunand Prasad’s presidency and not giving too much away about her commitments going forward.

Despite the perceived weakness of the RIBA, it is the new chair of CABE who has the most difficult job. Confidence in the commission has fallen, and, despite Finch’s answer to Chris Brown’s question on page 8, there is a feeling that it is too big an organisation with an unfocused mission.

Design review is where readers will have had most contact with the commission. The review methodology has been effective in the past, and when Finch himself was running it, the process had the respect of the profession.

But CABE is now 10 years old, and there’s barely a big practice in the country that hasn’t had its fingers burned by a tough review. I constantly hear complaints of CABE’s design review feeling arbitrary and high handed, too much like a crit. Also, there’s a feeling that schemes are not looked at in enough detail by officers.

Design review works for the highest profile projects, but it is not a sustainable way of improving standards across the country. It encourages us to see the city building by building, judging authorship rather than coherence and character. Better would be to encourage wider adoption of well-though-out design codes and character areas, thinking of the city as a fabric with a specific character, rather than a collection of individual buildings.

My experience of participating in design review at the borough level has been broadly positive, but the expertise on that panel would be much better deployed in helping the borough decide what kind of place it would like to be, rather than rejecting offensive buildings one by one.

There are also whole swathes of our built environment that are under the radar. Old people’s homes, for instance, or distribution sheds, seem to be outside of CABE’s aegis.

This must change. Finch must win back the profession’s confidence and try to establish how CABE can establish broader principles for improving our cities.

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