Memorandum by Mira Bar-Hillel, Planning
and Property Correspondent, London Evening Standard (CAB 14)
I have been reporting on planning, development,
architecture and conservation in London for the Standard and other
publications for over 20 years. I have amassed a considerable
body of experience based on countless exchanges with property
developers, planning consultants, architects and residents groups
as well as local authority planners and members.
The concept of "design review" has
troubled me since I first came across it in the days of the Royal
Fine Art Commission. I have always had serious reservations about
the validity and indeed fairness of a process whereby a group
of unelected, self-appointed and unaccountable individuals, sitting
behind closed doors, pass judgement on their peers (and arguably,
by definition, their competitors) on what are largely subjective
While it was the remit of the RFAC, my concerns
were tempered by the knowledge that its erratic and often downright
eccentric views carried relatively little weight with planning
authorities. However, when the design review function was taken
over by CABE, officially launched as "the Government's design
adviser", my concern turned into alarm.
That alarm proved increasingly well-founded.
I began to hear reports as well as rumours of CABE design review
"verdicts" affecting planning decisions on projects
involving tens of millions of pounds of investment which seemed
to be odd or disturbing. Even before the well-known incidents
in Croydon and South Kensington, which were to shake CABE to its
very foundations, the organisation's public image was being undermined
by what appeared to be excessive and single-minded enthusiasm
for particular kinds of development, and not necessarily the kind
favoured by local residents or their democratically elected representatives.
It caused me to question whether the design
review tail was wagging the CABE dog to its detriment. I believe
I found the answer when I talked about it to Jon Rouse in August,
by which time he had already left CABE and taken over at the Housing
Corporation. It was also after Sir Stuart Lipton had been forced
to resign from CABE over design review conflicts of interest issues.
I expected Jon to be defensive of what is probably
CABE's highest profile function, but he surprised me by saying
that he thought CABE, which carries out various useful functions
which have suffered from the loss of prestige which followed the
Lipton debacle, would probably be better off without design review
altogether. His comment provoked me into giving the issue much
thought, and the more I considered it the more sense it made.
There is nothing wrong with CABE advising developers
and designers during pre-planning stages and their publications
and education efforts have been received. But their direct influence
on council decision makers is always undemocratic and on occasion
deplorable. The majority of developers and architects I have discussed
this with agree with this proposition although they dare not speak
out openly for fear of retribution.
My submission to you is simply this: design
review a la CABE is iniquitous. I urge you to recommend it is
I would be happy to address the committee on
this subject should you consider it helpful.