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The inside story of the death - and re-birth - of CABE

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: CABE’s transformation over the last five months has produced a fully-fledged phoenix

Last Wednesday evening, a big party organised by CABE staff took place at King’s Cross, marking the final week of CABE in its current incarnation. Commissioners past and present, including the three chairs (Stuart Lipton, John Sorrell and myself) were all there and the event felt much more like a celebration than a wake.

On Thursday morning the commission met for the last time, and it must be said that the atmosphere was more subdued, though nice words were delivered from Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) civil servants.

We had to sign off various legal documents relating to the transfer of assets, responsibilities and liabilities both to the Design Council and to the DCMS. The final documents were signed at lunchtime, following which commissioners and senior staff held a lunch (busybodies please note: we paid for it ourselves) and leaving presents were distributed.

In particular it was an opportunity to thank Richard Simmons, the departing chief executive, for the extraordinary efforts he put into not only achieving an orderly winding up of CABE’s affairs, but into the ‘phoenix’ project which has now come to fruition.

That fruition was in evidence the next day, when the 19 CABE staff transferring to the Design Council (DC) arrived in Bow Street (opposite the Royal Opera House) to settle in under the helpful eye of David Kester, the DC chief exec. Di Haigh, former director of design review, is now responsible for DC CABE, with Kirsteen Mackay taking on the design review role.

We are back in business, and reviews will begin again shortly. There are about 120 ‘live’ cases that will need concluding, apart from some new ones on the agenda. And our ‘service level agreements’ will continue with, for example, LOCOG and Crossrail. All this has been made possible by housing and planning minister Grant Shapps, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has given us a two-year grant worth £5.5 million.

The final structure of the new organisation (the DC has restructured too) is still under way, so more on that when it is completed. But the good news is that CABE will be more inclusive, more localist (with some funding to help that along) but nevertheless carrying with it the DNA that we partly inherited from the Royal Fine Art Commission.

We are reviewing how best to undertake activities in the new organisation, with welcome help from Peter Bishop, former deputy chief at the London Development Agency. With a willing spirit there is much that can be achieved. As the ‘last man standing’ from the foundation of CABE in 1999, I will play an active part in keeping the flag flying at the new HQ.

CABE’s journey over the last five months now seems something of a blur. We had huge sympathy and support from the profession, both at home and abroad, which kept our spirits up when all seemed lost. (The small group of people who spotted an opportunity to stick the knife in, publicly or privately, had little effect. Shame on them.)

The CABE legacy will be a significant one judging by the amount of material (32 metres of shelf space) requested by the National Archives. Our website will remain up and running, and all our reports and advice documents will be free to download for as long as anyone finds them useful. There has been big interest in all this from academic and other institutions.

My huge regret is that, at the last moment in the Comprehensive Spending Review process, the DCMS lost its nerve. For the sake of a modest sum of money it abandoned the mother of the arts, with which it no longer has much of a relationship. Old CABE, incidentally, will carry on with a skeleton commission for the next six months – winding up a public body is a fiendishly complex and laborious task.

Happily Design Council CABE (DCabe for short) will be concentrating on the future. The phoenix is flying.

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