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

Memorandum by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) (CAB 16)


  The Royal Institute of British Architects is one of the most influential architectural institutions in the world, and has been promoting architecture and architects since being awarded its Royal Charter in 1837. The 30,000-strong professional institute is committed to serving the public interest through good design. It also represents 85% of registered architects in the UK through its regional structure as well as a significant number of international members. Our mission statement is simple—to advance architecture by demonstrating benefit to society and promoting excellence in the profession.

  The RIBA welcomes the Committee's inquiry as an opportunity to state our firm support for CABE at a pivotal moment in its existence. The RIBA would be very happy to provide oral evidence or further written evidence if the Committee so wishes. In the meantime we will answer the Committee's inquiry terms of reference in turn, together with other observations which we hope the Committee will find of interest.


  CABE has recently undertaken a review of its own priorities for investment and development. Its corporate strategy document for 2004-07—"Transforming Neighbourhoods"—notes the organisation's many successes in its first five years but recognises the need to focus on fewer priorities and to manage the expectations of a wide number of clients. CABE will therefore focus on five priority areas: what makes a good neighbourhood, homes and streets, green spaces, the learning neighbourhood and the healthy neighbourhood.

  We consider this choice of priorities to be a sensible one. It chimes well with Government areas of activity where CABE can make a real difference—for example through the different strands of the Sustainable Communities Plan or through influencing the outcomes of major new investment in health and education.

  CABE's strategic review found that it should continue campaigning and lobbying, with particular emphasis on public buildings, public spaces and new homes. We agree entirely. We would consider CABE's role as a champion for high-quality design within Government to be one of its most effective in its first five years. CABE has shone a torch into many of the darker corners of public building procurement, and can take much of the credit for ensuring that design quality is taken into account by Government or arms length organisations when commissioning new public buildings. There remains, however, much to do.

  The RIBA is pleased to have been able to work with CABE to persuade Government of the importance of high quality design: for example we are currently working together with the CABE enabling team to build design more effectively into the DfES Building Schools for the Future programme. We expect this particular partnership to deliver good results. In recent months we have also co-operated successfully to deliver changes to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and remain hopeful that our efforts to improve the Government's draft Planning Policy Statement 1 will have a successful outcome. CABE are right to say that it needs to operate strategically with and through others—such as ourselves—and not to seek to deliver large programmes on its own. With unprecedented levels of public sector building investment there remains a major challenge—for example in the hospital building programme—and we are keen to help CABE ensure that design quality is central to both Government thinking and public sector delivery.

  As the establishment of CABE Education is relatively recent, we are pleased to note that CABE proposes to continue concentrating on this area of activity. The RIBA's own education and outreach activity has also been given added impetus through the RIBA Trust. We hope that the RIBA and CABE can build a close working relationship in this sphere to allow people to gain a better and deeper understanding of the built environment.

  CABE Space is now well-established. Created following an injection of funding from DETR (now ODPM) to enhance DCMS grant-in-aid, its work to promote public spaces nicely complements CABE's other more-established activities. Within a slimmed-down strategy, it is important that CABE Space is not seen by either Government department as the "ODPM bit" of CABE and therefore distinguishable from its other activities. CABE's focus on neighbourhoods rightly notes that buildings and spaces must go together. Government, when making future spending decisions, should also continue to take such a holistic approach to CABE activity.


  Many RIBA members have submitted schemes for consideration by the design review committee while others have served on design review panels. We have drawn upon the views of several of these members in preparing our comments on this aspect of CABE's work.

  The design review committee has earned considerable respect among architects and others. The dedication and knowledge of Paul Finch (until recently Chairman of the Design Review Committee), design review panel members and CABE supporting staff have been praised by many RIBA members. We confidently hope that this good record will continue under Les Sparks.

  Clients and architects who have been subject to CABE design review will usually describe the process itself as a positive one. The ability to present a scheme in person is welcome. The assessment can often be robust and occasionally extremely vigorous. Again this is to be welcomed: most would certainly prefer to receive criticism at the end of a challenging discussion with engaged and knowledgeable individuals than be subject to faceless or uncommunicative obstruction. Most architects who have received criticism from the CABE design review process have described it as useful—any such criticism is well-meant and well-founded. It is frequently minor and architects have felt that subsequent adjustments to designs have enhanced their schemes.

  It is felt that the criteria used by the committee are fair and consistently applied. It is just as important, however, to ensure that CABE continues to ensure a balance of opinion on design review panels. Panels are drawn from a pool of well- and relatively well-established architects and will naturally reflect the changing nature of the architectural establishment. In order to avoid potential criticism that design review favours the fashionable, it is important, therefore, to have panels representing a range of architectural styles.

  In comparison with the design review work of CABE's predecessor body the Royal Fine Art Commission, the work of the design review committee is certainly far more intensive and varied. In the absence of greater resources for design review work—which we would certainly support—the committee should be careful to avoid over-stretch. The committee has occasionally used informal reviews to overcome its inability to fully review as many schemes as it would like to, with occasional unintended consequences. The redevelopment of Camden Town underground station by London Underground Limited (LUL) is one such example, where an informal review which was not followed up by a full review was taken to imply CABE's approval. CABE should make it clearer, and planning authorities should better understand, that the absence of a full review or an inability to review does not imply tacit approval by CABE.

  While it has been argued that some local planning authorities tend to use CABE design review as a fall-back option instead of fully scrutinising planning applications themselves, other local authorities have conversely treated the work of the design review committee rather lightly. The Kings Crescent housing scheme in Hackney is an example, where the developers and architects volunteered for scrutiny by CABE in order to secure local planning authority support for an outline planning application (such support having previously been withdrawn following changes within the local planning department). Together with some minor but constructive criticisms, the scheme won the support of the design review committee as well as that of English Heritage. Nevertheless, this was disregarded by Hackney Borough Council, and the developers and architects feel extremely disappointed that the resulting scheme is a dramatic watering-down of their original vision. In disregarding CABE and EH advice, perhaps local authorities should be obliged to give a clearer account of their reasons for doing so.


  The RIBA enjoys a very healthy relationship with CABE. As the voice of the architectural profession, we consider that our role complements that of CABE as the champion of high quality architecture and the built environment within Government.

  There is a certain degree of overlap between our respective organisations: a number of RIBA members either serve or have served as CABE Commissioners while others have served on CABE design review panels. We consider this to be an entirely healthy overlap which, together with close co-operation between CABE and RIBA staff, has contributed to the good relationship which exists between the Commission and the Institute.

  That healthy overlap extends beyond representatives to our respective roles. CABE's purpose—to demonstrate the ability of great architecture and urban design to transform people's quality of life—is very close to the RIBA mission statement. We work best when we work together, yet there are important differences. As an independent representative professional body, we are able to provide advice for and criticism of Government policy which CABE may feel unable to provide because of the restraints present upon non-departmental public bodies. CABE is similarly able to use its independence from the architectural profession to say occasionally unpalatable things about the profession which the RIBA—as the professional body—would be unable to do.

  We have already mentioned co-operation in terms of influencing public sector building programmes, planning policy and education. The RIBA has found CABE a natural partner in ensuring the future effectiveness of the proposed National Centre for Sustainable Community Skills.

  Since 2002 the RIBA and CABE have jointly sponsored Building Futures, an over-the-horizon review of the future needs of society from the built environment and, consequently, the built environment professions in 20 years and beyond. Building Futures has held many successful conferences and has produced searching works by leading built environment thinkers—aimed at inspiring innovation and influencing policy in the public and private sectors. Recent examples include 21st Century Schools, Housing Futures 2024, The Professionals' Choice: the future of the built environment professions and Riding the Rapids: urban life in an age of complexity. While we understand CABE's need to re-adjust its focus, we nevertheless regret that it will be stepping back from full partnership investment in Building Futures when the programme reaches the end of its initial three-year term in March 2005. We are hopeful, however, that the collaboration will continue where Building Futures targets areas of particular relevance to CABE's new priorities.


  The RIBA is in no doubt at all that CABE has done some excellent work in its first five years and this is more than enough to justify its continued existence. The comparative impact within and without Government of the RFAC and CABE is extremely impressive. As a champion for architecture outside Government, the RIBA highly values such an effective organisation within Government.

  Much of CABE's success in its first five years is due to the drive and influence of Jon Rouse and Sir Stuart Lipton as Chief Executive and Chairman respectively. CABE now finds itself at a pivotal moment in its existence. We look forward to developing a good relationship with Richard Simmons as the new Chief Executive. But the appointment of a new Chairman will set the tone for the organisation for several years to come. It is a crucial appointment.

  In the light of the inquiry by DCMS into possible conflicts of interest within CABE, there may be some nervousness about appointing someone with an active professional interest in the built environment. We hope not, and completely agree with Sir Stuart's own recent comments that whoever succeeds him as Chair must have such a current interest, although we would respectfully add that not all potential chairs need be developers. An active professional interest is vital if he or she is to secure and maintain the respect of their peers, Government and many other clients needed to operate successfully.

  CABE cannot function effectively in isolation and recognises itself that it must work in partnership with others such as the RIBA. Its sponsoring Government departments remain vital partners and they should not absolve themselves of responsibility as design champions within Government as CABE itself continues to develop. DCMS established CABE, and was instrumental in both opening Whitehall doors in CABE's first years and in securing and sustaining ODPM funding for the organisation. CABE have made the most of this, but need the continuing support of strong Government patrons if they are to effectively champion design quality to the rest of the public sector.

  CABE is not just an adjunct to the planning system. It has grown from being a modest NDPB of the DCMS. It has a real role in driving up standards of design, and public appreciation of design and the built environment. We look forward to working in partnership with a trim, focused and well-resourced CABE in the future.

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