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Diane Haigh answers questions on CABE

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The new director of architecture and design review at CABE answers readers' questions

‘Given the pressure on resources at CABE and its respected position across the private and public sectors, isn’t it time for CABE to train architects and outsource its Design Review enterprise to local planning authorities?’
Paul Latham, director of the Regeneration Practice, East London

Diane Haigh: Right now we don’t support the creation of local design review panels. We do support regional design review panels, and think they have huge potential. They need to have independent, insightful panel members and indeed many are former CABE reviewers. Although these panels aren’t run by CABE, they have learnt from our processes and are becoming well established. I don’t think outsourcing is the answer - local authorities themselves are entitled to independent advice and at times it is difficult for their own staff to stand aside from political pressure.

’What can be done to help raise the quality of local authority committee decisions?’
Peter Murray, exhibitions director of New London Architecture and director of Wordsearch

DH: Local authorities need to become far more confident mediators of design quality and ambition. Every single planning committee member should be required to get some training and experience of what makes good architecture. Multi-area agreements can be used to share design capacity across smaller local authorities. This still leaves the thorny issue of just how far some planning authorities are prepared to stand up for design standards against pressure from developers. My greatest regret is to see ill-considered and exploitative schemes pushed through despite CABE giving the local authority all the reasons to insist on better urban design, or to reject them. This lack of confidence or ambition means that many smaller towns, especially those who feel economically disadvantaged, are losing opportunities to rebuild an integrated urban fabric and reclaim their historic town centre.

'How can CABE put itself into a position where it can exert more influence over planning committees' decisions? Currently the committees can choose to simply ignore CABE's views and advice on applications if they wish to.'
Jeremy Estop, managing director at MJP Architects

DH:It takes a brave committee to ignore CABE’s views. It does happen, but not often. The response of planning committees to schemes after we have reviewed them is monitored - many do demand changes before permission is granted, and schemes are often rejected because of CABE’s advice. We see our relationship with local authorities as a constructive partnership, not wielding a big stick. It is not just design review which can influence design quality of course – our enabling, skills and regional teams also promote good design before schemes come to review.

‘Is influencing the design standard of the lumpen mass of new housing – of both the city living and the greenfield varieties – a more useful thing for CABE to be doing than ‘polishing up’ whizzy new City towers – and does a design review process stand a chance of achieving this?’
Peter Stewart, former head of CABE design review

DH: Always nice to get a curved ball from someone who’s faced the same challenges! As you know, Peter, it’s both. Our experience of reviewing City towers suggests that at times it is a great deal more than just ‘polishing up’ that’s needed for such prominent arrivals. But it is currently housing schemes which constitute the largest single element of CABE’s design review programme right now. This needs to work in tandem with a tool like Building for Life, but nothing will succeed without better informed consumer demand

‘Do you think that, where a planning application is the subject of an appeal, the inspector should be asked to take into account CABE’s design review comments as a matter of course?’
Jack Pringle, former RIBA president

DH: Yes. CABE’s advice does have influence and our letters are frequently quoted at appeal. But we are working with the planning inspectorate to achieve consistency in the approach to design at appeal and to reinforce the new understanding of the imperative of design quality throughout the planning process.

‘CABE’s influence is almost exclusively in the public sector - do you envisage CABE looking to improve building design standards in the private sector and, if so, how?’
Geoff Alsop, Managing Director, Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams

DH: Our influence isn’t exclusively in the public sector. One of the most interesting things about CABE is how it is changes cultures, as well as the quality of individual schemes. I think the private sector is prioritizing design issues, partly in order to manage the commercial risk of a poor scheme but also because it’s what clients and customers now aspire to. I want to see CABE as a cultural champion as much as a critic of individual proposals.

‘Do you think Classical architecture is appropriate for today?’
Robert Adam of Robert Adam Architects

DH: Yes, if it is of good quality and in the right place. Classical architecture would be interrogated in the same way as all other schemes because it still demands design excellence and appropriate response to context.

‘CABE has expanded both its remit and the numbers of staff so that it is now a very large organisation advising on a huge range of projects. How can you ensure the design review members are briefed to adopt a consistent approach irrespective of a personal architectural ideology?’
John Assael, of Assael Architecture

DH: CABE is an organisation of many parts which variously enable, educate, inspire, communicate, rsearch and review excellence. We’ve 100 staff in CABE and the design review staff team is 16 strong. We achieve a consistent approach by getting all the basics right – proper induction, clear process and a style-free agenda. I think it is the sheer diversity of our panels in their engagement with practice which protects us from the risk of a CABE orthodoxy.

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