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David Tittle: 'We need a review of design review'

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The design review process needs more teeth and a blend of national and local expertise, says the chief executive of West Midlands design review organisation MADE

Who will provide leadership to promote design quality in the built environment? This was a key issue addressed by the Farrell Review last year, and it has been taken up more recently by a House of Lords select committee on the National Policy for the Built Environment.

The committee has been calling in a number of witnesses such as former RIBA president Sunand Prasad, economist and housing expert Kate Barker, and myself, to present their own state-of-the-nation summary on the built environment (read the full transcript here).

When asked about the Farrell proposal of appointing a chief architect, the best answer came from Chris Carr, chair of the Federation of Master Builders’ Home Builders group, who in stereotypically blunt Northern style said: ‘It’d be alright if [they] knew what [they] were talking about’. 

Appointing a chief architect might seem like a token gesture

In reality, who can really object to having someone close to the heart of government who can act as a conduit to all parts of the built environment industry? But without a clear commitment from government on the importance of ‘place’, appointing a chief architect might seem like a token gesture.

When the old CABE disappeared, with it went a mechanism for bringing together and disseminating knowledge about design quality from across the professions, industry and government. It had provided a wealth of guidance and advice which now sits on an archived website, becoming more out of date by the day. 

Strangely it was design review, conceivably the least-loved CABE product, that continued. Perhaps because it’s the aspect that noisy London architects – who dominate built environment discourse – are most exercised about.

Let me explain: MADE lives off design review, so I’m not questioning the importance of it. My query is around the process, a topic that the chief architect could surely provide some guidance on.

When I talk to architects out in the regions, it is the one-off, make-or-break nature of design review that they resent the most. It leads to a process similar to that observed in schools facing their SATs of ‘teaching to the test’, where huge effort is put into anticipating the views of the panel and preparing to respond to them. This does not provide a conducive atmosphere for a collaborative discussion about potential scheme improvements.

MADE and others tasked with delivering design review at a local level such as the Design Network groups have tried to shake off this legacy, but perhaps there is more we can do. There is a growing groundswell of support for the idea of locally managed panels which blend national and local expertise, replacing the panel parachuting in from the capital who know little of the issues within that region.

The design review process needs more teeth

In addition, we know architects want more of an iterative process where they can get independent advice and review at key stages as their designs emerge. This needs to be married with the needs of the developer who wants certainty – to know which direction to take following a review and to be sure the local authority will take the same line. Either way, the process needs more teeth, potentially a set of minutes that set key actions to be responded to, before planning consent can be granted.

Meanwhile, the leadership gap remains. With the latest upsurge in development activity it seems a variety of players is informally stepping into the breach: Farrell, the Design Network and professional bodies, the Academy of Urbanism and not least the Place Alliance, which brings all of these together in its Big Meets and working groups. 

Indeed, the Place Alliance has just launched an online open source directory for guidance, case studies and research. Perhaps at last, a replacement for the CABE publications we all miss.

David Tittle is chief executive of MADE, an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of cities, towns and villages in the West Midlands and beyond. He is also chair of the Design Network and a trustee of Civic Voice, the national organisation for Civic Societies

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