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Sadie Morgan: ‘Design quality is top of HS2 panel’s agenda’

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Chair of High Speed 2’s new 45-strong design panel Sadie Morgan explains its role, defends its size and hits back at claims it is too London-centric

What will the panel do?
‘The panel has already started in a different guise. For the last six months we’ve had interim panels running. Knowing that putting a long-term panel together would take time, we started early. We had to make sure that nothing fell through the cracks.

‘The interim panels have been extremely successful. The team at HS2 has a design vision and they have asked the panel to hold them to account over it.

We can’t be seen as holding up the process

‘Under my leadership the design panel will not be about gatepost reviews, but about mentoring and being a critical friend. To do that you need to make sure these are “little and often” rather than big reviews. This is also hard to do due to the speed of the project. There’s a necessity to make sure that we are not seen as a group of people who are holding up the process, but as people who are enabling and helping the team.

‘The panel itself and various experts will be called upon depending on what is to be looked at during any one time. It is unlikely there will be a point where there are 45 people around the table. Panels will consist of between two to five people; that is how we have been working to date. It is not just about panels either – sometimes it is more workshop- or learning-based. We’ve a lot of expertise in various areas and have called upon those people to give talks or discussions about their organisations.

‘It is about mentoring and that has been happening while the team at HS2 has been putting together their thoughts and strategies. So we are really capturing some of this work right at its beginning.’

The interim panels which have already met, have they been made up of people who are on this 45-strong panel?
‘Not all. There are some people who have made it through. It is an open process and everyone started from a level playing field. The interim panel members were also hugely experienced and exceptional in what they could offer, but we had a limited number of places and wanted a wide range of expertise.

‘Many people on the panel are cross-disciplinary so their skills cover many different areas. This adds to the difficulty of saying “this person comes under this category” when they have a multi-faceted career with skills that you could put into any number of categories.’

What is the panel’s exact responsibilities and is its advice binding?
‘We are advisory. That is the focus. Our advice is not mandatory – as is the nature of any panel. However, the experience to date is that the panels are taken extremely seriously. So far, in the reviews that have given us more than one opportunity to see a project or a particular area, advice which has been given has always been taken into account. I don’t see that changing.

‘There is such an appetite for it within the organisation. There will be areas where it is trickier and at some points there may be a resistance to the advice which has been given. But that will always be the case. It is a part of the process. There is such a political weight behind this panel – it has buy-in from such a high level, from the secretary of state to the CEO of HS2. I’ve a huge amount of support to do what I’m doing. It is unlikely that the panel isn’t going to be taken seriously. So far the conversations, the reports, the outputs have immediately been fed back in to raise the quality of the work which is being produced.’

Will you be involved in appointing architects to work on HS2 projects?
‘I can’t answer that. But I would expect the panel to have some involvement in making sure that the quality of the teams involved is of the highest standard.’

The panel is large due to its breadth

Why is the panel so large?
‘We had more than 300 people apply of the most extraordinary calibre. One would hope the panel will be a fluid group of people and that those who have applied before could join at a later date or when areas of particular interest are being examined.

‘At the moment the first chunk of work is about civils, second will be more focused on the stations, the third on the trains and the fourth on communication. We have to make sure we have the right expertise to focus on the things coming forward. HS2 needs an integrated system so you have to have a lot of voices who understand the finished result in any expertise which they have. The reason the panel is so large is, in fact, down to the breadth.

‘As we went through the process, and also reflecting on what had already been done on the interim stage, we realised it isn’t a design review just focused on stations. This is looking at tunnels, tracks, trains, the website, communication, signage and the passenger experience. There are so many different disciplines involved. When you look at it holistically it seemed shortsighted to try to put that to a small group of people and expect everything to be covered.’

How were the members of the panel appointed?
‘It was an incredibly rigorous process. Over 300 people filled out applications. You can imagine how long they took to go through. We had a group of people who went through all the applications and marked them against a set of criteria. Then we had a longlisting and a shortlisting before the final decision was made. Ultimately the decision came down to an independent group of people but the process was collaborative.’

If the panel doesn’t make design better then everyone has failed

Will the panel really have any say on design quality?
‘If you look at the way advisory panels have been set up from the Paul Finch era at CABE to the Olympics, they have made a huge difference. That is why HS2 non-executive chair David Higgins suggested that HS2 have its own review panel. Our advice is advice. We have enough critical thinkers, experts and practitioners who are critiquing and helping that you can be sure design quality is at the top of our agenda.

‘If it doesn’t make it better then everyone has failed. We are all ultimately wanting the same thing. HS2 has asked for help and we are there to give it. They are asking us to help make sure that they deliver the best design quality. In the last six months we have made significant impact and a difference.’

HS2_Webv_All_Infographic

Why is it that just nine members of the panel are based outside of London when HS2 influences many more regional cities and towns?
‘Nine members of the panel have addresses which are outside of London. Looking at the mix and actually looking at where people work tells a different story.

‘It’s like saying there are no heritage experts on the panel – if you actually read the CVs of those on the panel there are five or six people who have expertise in that area.

‘If you take the time to unpick and look – as we did – you’ll find that there are a number of people with expertise outside of the London region.

‘Alongside that we also have regional panels with 50:50 regional representation. We’ve already had a design review meeting for Birmingham’s Curzon Street station with representation that they have hand-picked.

‘I’m confident that we have a good mix, not only of discipline but also of perspective. It isn’t just London-centric. We have a number of people who have worked for much of their lives in the North but have submitted through their London office. Because of this, and the regional panels, we feel that there is proper and good representation. Aside from the panel itself I meet and deal with a number of interested parties – every quarter I meet NGOs like the National Trust, English Heritage, CBRE and also the local authorities. I give them updates and listen to their concerns.’

Do we really need an expert panel? Shouldn’t what they are tackling be sorted by the design and delivery teams?
‘We have design reviews in my own office here at dRMM. It’s about sharing ideas, best practice and learning from what other people have to offer. One would expect that those who win the work will be of the highest calibre and in that sense, yes, they will have the skills to do it.

‘But there is nothing to be lost from having a group of people there as a sounding board and a critical friend. It is natural to ask the opinions of others and to communicate. If you are part of an organisation it is right to go outside that organisation for advice. There are a huge number of expert, willing people ready to get involved. The creative industries need to get on board. This is a massive project and a massive opportunity.’

Could CABE and its design review panel not have been used to do this?
‘This is a review panel which is looking to take lessons from CABE but it is not there to replicate it. This needs to be a different type of model. It needs to be independent from those types of bodies which have been before. That has always been something I’ve been very passionate about. CABE has done extraordinarily good work.’

I want people to be talking about the HS2 effect

How will it differ to the design review process used at the Olympics? What lessons have you learned from this?
‘There’s plenty to learn from London 2012. A number of the panel have direct experience of the Olympic process. This is not Olympics number two. We have to be careful. We are all very aware of the success of the Olympics and of course we want to make sure this project is carried out with a similar effect.

‘But I don’t want it to be the Olympic effect – I want people to be talking about the HS2 effect. The lesson to be learnt is that design adds value. Making sure that you don’t make decisions early on which will affect the long-term possibilities is also key. With the Olympics that took them a bit of time to learn. I want to create the understanding within everyone at HS2 that design is critical.’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Really. You would hope so!

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  • There have been 'concerns' about Euston ever since the arch was destroyed , so it'll be very interesting to see what effect the independent design panel has on what happens here.

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