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

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 aesthetic issues.

  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 ended.

  I would be happy to address the committee on this subject should you consider it helpful.

Mira Bar-Hillel

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 27 October 2004