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At last GLA wakes up to the benefits of design review

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

The GLA’s recognition of the usefulness of design review is welcome, but raises concerns about the mayor’s powers, says Paul Finch

London mayor Sadiq Khan has recognised something that neither of his two predecessors did: design review can play a useful role in the generation of decent buildings and environments. This is one of the messages in the Good Growth report, whose recommendations will start coming into effect this September.

Ken Livingstone was certainly a champion of architecture, urban design and planning – courtesy of Richard Rogers, on whose ideas Livingstone based his first election campaign. However, the Architecture and Urban Design Unit (AUU) subsequently created had something of an aversion to design review, preferring the notion of proactive development of design briefs, plus dirigiste appointment/promotion/approval of consultants from the centre.

In an ideal world that is not a bad strategy, since if you get it right then you should not need automatic external design reviews to get to the desired result. The world not being ideal, however, the policy was only a partial success. When it came to the London Olympics, for example, the GLA folk buckled down and joined the CABE panel (which I had the privilege of chairing for seven years), covering everything from masterplanning to all the buildings (permanent and temporary), the look and feel and even the sponsor pavilions – the latter two programmes carried out by CABE after its merger with the Design Council.

Clearly the GLA’s general policy could not directly relate to work being done by the private sector, since the AUU had no locus other than to comment where proposals might appear to be directly contradictory to the thrust of mayoral urban design policies. In fact when it came to specific issues, Livingstone could draw on CABE’s experience to support his own views: for example in the case of proposals for the London Hospital, he threatened to veto planned designs on the basis of CABE’s criticisms.

This raises the issue of power and responsibility, which will no doubt be discussed as the 50 mayoral design advocates, recently announced, carry out a review of London design review. (My advice is to get them to read the Peter Bishop report for Design Council CABE. None of this stuff is new.)

A design panel of 50 is about 35 too many if there is to be any chance of getting consistency of tone and indeed attendance

The dilemma for those who believe in disinterested design review is this: will a GLA design panel in effect become a cipher for the mayor himself, ie ‘Do what we say or Sadiq will block planning permission’? In addition, there is the problem of replication, which the Good Growth report says should be avoided. The problem is that the success of the CABE model has led to numerous panels all over London. Is the GLA really going to leave significant proposals up to local groups, and focus only on areas that do without, for example the City of London or Westminster council?

Another issue for consideration is the question of numbers. Frankly, a design panel of 50 is about 35 too many if there is to be any chance of getting consistency of tone and indeed attendance. This is not a simple matter, and is one that will be costly to administer – especially since much of the work of the advocates will be about what CABE used to call ‘enabling’, that is to say putting skilled individuals on to projects that need it. 

I no longer have any connection with Design Council CABE (I did my time from 1999 to last year), so it is a disinterested suggestion on my part that the GLA has a word with a group that knows how to organise this stuff and how to deal with large groups of disparate professionals. If the mechanics aren’t right, there will be much wasted effort. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • In Design Council CABE's guidance on design review, the first of ten principles of design review is that it should be independent. It can be hard for a panel to assert an independent view where is a one-to-one relationship between the panel and a planning authority, as is the case with local authority panels, and the proposed GLA panel - particularly when offering advice to as powerful a decision maker as the Mayor of London.

    I agree that it would be good for the GLA to ask Design Council CABE for advice. If they do, I hope that the latter will remember to mention the point about independence.

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