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Damning CABE with faint praise

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Despite the resignation of Sir Stuart Lipton from his position as head of CABE, the publication last week of a report into possible conflicts of interest within the commission has left the design watchdog badly bruised

'Mud sticks' and 'there's no smoke without fire' are certainly two phrases that those working hard in CABE's Waterloo headquarters are likely to become only too familiar with in the next few weeks.

The reason is that the commissioners and staff of the design watchdog face something of an unusual problem with the long-awaited report into conflicts of interest published last week. It is not that the report was damning. In some ways that would have been easier, because at least they would have known where they stood and would have been able to brace themselves for widespread reform.

The trouble is that, although the governmentappointed auditor cleared the commission of any wrongdoing, it was certainly not a cutand-dried affair.

Although the auditor's conclusions state in no uncertain terms that the staff and commissioners have not broken the allimportant Nolan Principles - the rules governing what is and is not a conflict of interest - there is still a distinctly unpleasant smell wafting around CABE's work.

So where does this whiff come from? The most obvious answer is Sir Stuart Lipton's resignation two days before the report's publication last Thursday.

Why, cynics immediately asked, did he resign if he had done nothing wrong?

One reason is that Lipton was left looking not exactly cleaner than clean. Although cleared of major misdemeanours, the auditor discovered that Lipton had not exactly been comprehensive on the subject of registering his many interests.

For example, the report observes he failed to register interests in two - of the many - companies he had set up in a private capacity. Although neither of these firms, Cibitas and First Base, had started trading and therefore did not have to be registered, the auditor noted that it would have been sensible to ensure they made it into the public realm.

Another area of concern was Lipton's acceptance of an unpaid directorship with Network Rail in 2003. The report observes that it is odd that Lipton took up the role long before the position appeared on his public register of interests. Not that it was any secret - the appointment was widely reported after Network Rail issued a press release.

None of these indiscretions can be condemned outright because none of them break any of the rules governing conflicts of interest in public life. However, neither were these findings the result that CABE's senior leadership were confidently predicting when the report was announced in March.

Similarly, the operations of the Design Review Committee (DRC) were left in something of a grey area. The conclusions of the report can be summed up as: 'We don't believe you have done anything wrong but there are things that need to be corrected and here are the reforms that need to be put in place.'

One thing is certain, those in charge of the DRC's work - until recently the AJ's editorial director Paul Finch, who was succeeded earlier this year by Ken Shuttleworth - are going to have to be extremely careful about who they appoint as DRC members.

Indeed, the report insists that in future it must advertise publicly for these positions.

However, the audit report's most important recommendation - and the main reason Lipton had to go - was that an active developer should never again take up the chairmanship.

If not a developer, then who? The report makes a distinction between developers and consultants, so theoretically an architect could be eligible. But that seems unlikely.

A lay person would not be easily accepted, as many people believe the reason for the watchdog's success is that many of its senior leadership were either part of, or very close to, both development and architecture. It was, as a direct result, taken seriously by the industry.

This problem is perhaps best summed up by the former architecture boss at the Arts Council of Great Britain, Rory Coonan, a long-term CABE-watcher.

'It seems odd that ministers now repudiate Sir Stuart for possessing the very qualities and connections they once admired, and of which they made much when appointing him, ' he told the AJ.

'CABE's success depends on influence, since it has no statutory power. The one thing worse than an fiactive property developerfl as its chairman, would be an inactive developer.

No-one would take that seriously.'

Whoever is brave enough to accept the role of succeeding Lipton some time in the year ahead is going to have a major PR job to completely remove the cloud created by this most ambiguous of reports.

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