Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Law Society (CAB 03)

  I write on behalf of the Law Society's Planning Environmental Law Committee in response to the invitation to submit views on the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment to the ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee. The Law Society is the professional representative and a regulatory body for the 100,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales. The Committee is formed of 20 practitioners expert in these areas of the law.

  CABE was established as a non-departmental public body in 1999 to promote good standards in the design of buildings and public spaces and by so doing to improve the environment in which people live, learn, work and play. In that capacity CABE has produced useful guidance which the ODPM has promulgated— By Design, guidance on better urban design and Better Plans To Live, advice for local planning authorities and developers. In our view this has been a significant, beneficial result of the creation of CABE.

  However, we are concerned with the way in which CABE has been developing more recently and the possible changes to its status in the future. CABE has assumed a voice in the planning system beyond its original remit, often going to the Press with its views in advance of meeting with developers and local authorities. It has insisted on imposing its own particular views on certain development proposals and has been conducting itself as though it was a body of similar power and status as English Heritage.

  We are very disturbed by the proposal that has been slipped into the recent DEFRA consultation document Clean Neighbourhoods that CABE should now be established on a statutory basis. It is but a short step from CABE assuming the role of a statutory consultee, adding yet another layer into the consultation process. Remember that one of the proposals in the consultation package that formed the Planning Green Paper that foreshadowed the Planning and Purchase Act was that the number of statutory consultees should be reduced for reasons of expediting the planning system.

  CABE has a major task in repairing the damage to its reputation which led to the premature departure of its Chairman. The real issue is that matters of design are to a degree issues of subjective personal taste. It is unacceptable for one organisation, whatever its legal status, to interpose its views on development proposals. At most it should be one body whose advice can be sought either by consulting its advisory material or through a direct approach for advice on a particular project. Advisory criteria cannot be binding on a local planning authority. Design is a material consideration in the determination of planning applications. However, it is unusual for a development proposal to be rejected solely on the grounds of design issues. The views of CABE on a particular proposal can only be advisory: they cannot predominate over other relevant planning considerations.

  In the view of the Law Society's Planning and Environmental Law Committee, CABE should remain an advisory body at arms length from the Government. Good guidance which it produces can be issued with the approval of the Government. However, its main role should continue to be to proselytise, to argue the case for a better environment and to enthuse planning authorities and developers in favour of improved design. It should not become the equivalent of a statutory consultee, able to pass persuasive verdicts on development proposals.

Yours faithfully

John Ludlow

Head of Parliamentary Unit

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Prepared 27 October 2004