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The rise and rise of design review panels

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The success of your is project is more likely than ever to lie in the hands of an unelected committee of your peers.

‘There is,’ says Kathy MacEwen, CABE’s head of design review programme, ‘a growing trend for design review panels (DRPs) across the country.’
The explosion of DRPs – sometimes called Architectural Appraisal Panels (AAPs) – in London backs her statement up. In the last three years, eight of London’s 33 boroughs – Merton, Kingston, Southwark, Lewisham, Newham, Kensington and Chelsea, Haringey and Richmond – have formed DRPs or are in the process of doing so.
And nationally, MacEwen’s assertion is borne out by the stream of architects turning up to review the work of their peers in cities like Leeds, Barnsley, Sheffield, Bristol, Manchester, Chester, Liverpool, Hull, Walsall, Coventry, Plymouth and Birmingham.
It is all a far cry from the days when the Royal Fine Art Commission – formed in 1924 – acted as the arbiter of architectural taste. That changed in 1999 when CABE was established.
A key CABE remit was the design review of ‘significant’ English schemes (see box on page
13 for definition of significant schemes). CABE chief executive Richard Simmons says that of 2,000 schemes reviewed, ‘eight out of 10’ practices say that the process has resulted in improved schemes. Further down the chain, CABE advises – but does not fund – six of the UK’s regions’own design review panels (see chart, above right). But it is beneath this tier that the revolution is gathering pace.
The Southwark DRP was formed three years ago. Its leader, Steve Riches, says that in the last 12 months it has received delegates from a number of other boroughs and local authorities keen on setting up DRPs – most recently Newham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Sheffield.
Riches says that his overriding goal as head of the DRP – which last year reviewed around 70 applications – is that ‘people should understand what best
practice is at a local level.’
He says: ‘Although we have some very exciting schemes, there are lots of areas where that level of design attention is not there. ‘We want to use the panel to raise the bar, not just along the river but also in areas like Peckham and the Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle.
But that bar can only be raised against a backdrop of understanding and respect between planning committees and the DRP panels; a situation that is not always apparent.

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