Following the call for a Design Quality Unit, Sarah James considers whether this is what is needed to drive up good quality urban design across England. You can learn more about the campaign for a Design Quality Unit here.
Do we need a new CABE?
in truth, I don’t know! I certainly don’t know the history of CABE and how well it worked or didn’t, the ins and outs of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) just wasn’t at the forefront of my mind as a local authority Development Control planner, as I was then. What I can reflect upon is my experience of trying to improve design quality as a planner working in local authorities in the West Midlands, both during and after CABE’s time.
I started my career in Development Control (as it was called then), a great place to start a planning career, to learn the basics, and believe me, you have to, very quickly. This was 2005, about halfway through CABE’s life. At this time, my local authority had resources. They sponsored me and two others to study a MSc in Spatial Planning part-time alongside our full-time jobs, as part of a drive to grow the planning team in-house. I loved studying the theory of planning, exploring the huge potential we have to shape our built environment and finding solutions to tackle complex problems. The reality of working in the ‘DC machine’ however, was perhaps not so appealing.
It was a grinding, clunking, stuttering machine. One of continuous, never-ending planning applications… of people, developers, and consultants ‘trying it on’, seeing what they can get away with, ‘is it bad enough to refuse?’, ‘has that shoddy development down the road already set a precedent?’, ‘what’s the permitted development fallback position?’ daily game. One that you never quite got on top of and at times, felt like you were drowning. Then got penalised for not meeting targets.
But what has this got to do with CABE?
Well, not a huge amount. To be honest I don’t recall being aware of CABE at that time. Improving design quality wasn’t really something we spent much time on or had experience of. We reacted to the proposal in front of us. Looking at a proposed housing layout for the first time, where do you start?
I worked with some very talented planners at that time, but design expertise was not often within their skill set. We consulted our in-house urban designer or landscape architect on applications and if they had no comments or objections, we were satisfied. There was no time to interrogate every proposed design or layout with a forensic eye, or come up with innovative solutions and negotiate with the agent. ‘Is it bad enough to refuse?’ was the key consideration.
Fast forward to 2009, and I got a job as senior officer in a Planning Policy Team within an affluent Borough. In this role I was responsible for developing Local Plan policy for a variety of topic areas, one being, design. It was in this role that I came across CABE and a vast amount of urban design guidance. From Manual for Streets, the Urban Design Compendium 1 and 2, By Design, Secured by Design, Building for Life, and more, no doubt! CABE had a hand in many of these publications.
At this local authority we also had a very proactive Director regarding encouraging high quality design and this filtered down to the planners and, some, transport planners. Through this leadership I was also made aware of CABE’s housing design quality audit for the West Midlands, and that we were one of the worst performing regions.
My job, therefore, as a policy planner was to think creatively and practically as to how we could develop planning policy to encourage better quality design across the Borough. I looked at good practice as highlighted by CABE, I undertook Building for Life training, as developed and promoted by CABE, and carried out assessments of local schemes together with our in-house urban designer. I worked collaboratively with our in-house expertise (urban designers, landscape architects, conservation officers, sustainability officers and Development Management planners) and together, we developed a Design policy that we thought could work – balancing being ambitious and raising the standard of urban design quality but also being realistic, and viable, creating a policy that complied with national policy and guidance and could pass independent examination.
My view at that time was, if we couldn’t implement a robust urban design policy in this wealthy Borough, where would this be possible?
We introduced Building for Life into policy and required residential development proposals to demonstrate how they met BfL. We also introduced BfL as a monitoring indicator so we could keep an eye on the place quality coming forward and to monitor the effectiveness of the policy. Despite a vociferous local housebuilding community, mainly objecting to the inclusion of BfL, the policy was adopted in Dec 2013. It wasn’t perfect and looking back, some parts haven’t aged that well, but it was of its time and reflected the direction of travel particularly with regard to Code for Sustainable Homes and Lifetime Homes.
But bringing it back to CABE, how did it help me at the time?
The organisation was a national design champion and brought attention to the vast amount of poor quality residential environments being built at that time. This filtered down to local authorities and gave us evidence to act upon. Or to try to. No planner comes into the job to create poor quality places.
There was a huge amount of urban design guidance available at the time. Perhaps too much in hindsight? It was difficult to navigate, no-one has time to read all of that, particularly not a Development Management planner assessing a complex application. They need timely, expert advice to draw upon, from a range of disciplines. But the urban design guidance was good and CABE produced or had a hand in most of it.
I understand CABE undertook design reviews, although I had no experience of this. However, I did have direct experience of participating in in-house design reviews in this local authority. We, of course, had the benefit of in-house expertise, not all local authorities have this now, but I saw the benefit of having key experts feeding into the discussion and working collaboratively and how it made a difference to design outcomes. The benefits of in-house design review were that we could respond to proposals quickly and we could, over time, build a team that worked well together, from highways engineers to landscape architects to policy planners. We learned from each other’s perspectives and we had the benefit of local knowledge to assess schemes.
So, on reflection, do we need a new CABE? No.
CABE was no doubt, successful throughout its time but it was of its time. We are in a new political and economic landscape now and solutions need to be found that work in this era.
However, with the Government’s welcome focus on raising the quality of new residential development or ‘building beautifully’ and the publication of the Place Alliance’s national Housing Design Audit, now is the time to act.
Clearly, there is a need for a national design championing body to lead, to campaign, to inspire, to monitor and to persuade the sector to build back better.
Sarah James, Civic Voice
Local authority policy planner 2009 – 2014.
DM planner 2005 – 2008