Urban Update 06 May 2016 - Design Review - Big Meet 5 Event Report

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Big Meet 5 – Design Review  - Event Report 

There is a lot of interest in design review at the moment, and it is timely that the Place Alliance’s Big Meet 5 should have taken it as its focus.  England’s National Planning Policy Framework states that “local planning authorities should have local design review arrangements in place to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design” Mandatory design review is one of the recommendations of the Select Committee report on National Policy for the Built Environment.  But what is design review?   Is it the review of a design by experts?  Is it a quality audit?  Is it a public consultation?  Should it be a public exercise or a frank but confidential assessment?  Is there evidence that it improves design and speeds schemes through the planning system?  There are many questions that this conference attempted to address.

Professor Matthew Carmona began the day with the history of design review, tracing its origins to 1802 with the establishment of the Committee for the Inspection for Models for National Monuments, set up in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War.  It became known as the “Committee of Taste”.  In 1841 the Fine Arts Commission – was established to supervise issues of public taste and works of art for the newly built palace of Westminster.   In 1924 the Royal Fine Arts Commission was set up to advise on War memorials. It went on to conduct design inquiries.  For many years the committee pursued a policy of discretion to the point of virtually abstaining from public comment. Notable works reviewed were the GPO telephone boxes. It was a voice against the clean sweep of post War reconstruction proposals.   

Finally under in the 1990s under Lord Fawsley (aka Norman St John Stevas) they become more vocal, and then became subject themselves to criticism in the press such as being elitist.  (There is an anecdote about Lord Fawsley presiding over a design review where the scheme promoters had brought a scale model.  “I wonder what it looks like from the south” said Lord Fawsley.  “If you would like to come round to this side of the model you can see”.  “I wonder what it looks like from the South”  he repeated.   And this continued until someone realised that the noble Lord expected the model to be picked up and rotated so that its southern aspect addressed his noble face.)

In 1999 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment replaced the Royal Fine Art Commission.  The approach taken was to have fewer reviews of higher quality.    Regional design reviews soon followed on.  The closure of CABE led in 2011 to the emergence of  a free market in Design Review with several different approaches including:

·         Public panels

·         Private sub-contracting

·         Not for profit sub-contracting

·         Private panels for hire

·         Specialist panels

·         Private panels

Most local authorities assumed that design advice had statutory weight, when in fact it did not.  Critics described the process as  “a day out for unemployed architects with little relevant skill on the matter in hand”  or “self-serving, fairy-dust-sprinkling grandstanding by designers whose stars were past their sell by date. “  Less poetic criticisms were that design review was divorced from the democratic process, and there was no means to challenge the findings. 

Carmona took the view that CABE’s influence was profound and profoundly positive.  A lot of the impact was in the things that it prevented, and this may have been its greatest contribution.  Though, referring to the Walkie Talkie he reflected that sometimes it didn’t always get it right.  


Material considerations?

Victor McAllister of the Design Council  CABE, reported on a review of design review.  He raised the issue of the weight attached to material planning considerations, where generally greater weight is attached to issues raised which are supported by evidence rather than solely by assertion.   Was there evidence that design review sped schemes through the planning process.   Where was the monitoring?  These were questions which needed to be answered.

Clearly review comes in different forms.  A video prepared for the event by Ludo Campbell-Reid’s Auckland Design Office team interestingly referred to “Urban Design Review”.   David Ubaka spoke about the street design quality audit methodology proposed by the CIHT, and published as Traffic Advisory Leaflet 5/11 which proposes a framework of checks, and a series of specialist component audits, such as cycle audit, pedestrian audit etc, carried out at different stages.   Max Farrell spoke about Place review, including the review of existing places. 


More resources needed for design support

Amy Burbidge of the North Northamptonshire Joint Planning Unit gave picture of running a design review and support service on limited resources.  The NNJPU is a local partnership of Corby, Wellingborough, Kettering and East Northamptonshire councils together with Northamptonshire County Council which are working together to create an overall plan for North Northamptonshire.  She implied a ratio of roughly 1 design staff member for every 5000 houses in production.   The more numerate among the audience will have compared this figure with the ratio of 1 planner for every 5 houses built in the UK annually, and will have concluded that there is scope to redirect resources from the legal and procedural side of planning and into actual town planning and urban design.


Developer’s perspective

Nigel Longstaff  - Group Urban Design Director – Barratt Developments plc told of their aspiration for “great ordinariness”  and went on to list some of the practical problems faced by developers:

·         Local authorities with out of date design guides

·         Highway authority requiring standard surfacing materials such as tarmac if a scheme is to be adopted

·         Heavy commuted sums

·         Parking – always a problem … some councils restrict parking, some require so much parking that there is little room for landscaping

Several speakers spoke on the practical side of running a design review service, and this continued into the discussion sessions as to the composition of panels, and whether members of the public should be involved.



Should design review be carried out in public or in private?   There were some who advocated transparency and openness, and on the other hand being able to offer frank or commercially sensitive opinions that it would not be possible to voice in public.  The irony would be that by making the reviews fully public, openness would actually reduce, if panel members became reluctant to voice their true opinions.  

The issue of inclusion was raised, and whether this should be reflected in panels. by gender, ethnicity, age, or any other attribute.   It should be remembered that all professionals individually owe a moral duty to the public, and often this will be written into professional codes of conduct; there may also be legal duties under the Equality Act 2010.   It is unquestionably a role for the Design Panel to ensure that the design is inclusive, and that an appropriate and proportionate amount of public consultation and involvement has been carried out.

The stage in the design process at which design review should be undertaken was an issue, and there were advocates for advocate revisiting the same design using the same panel as the scheme evolved.

The last word goes to Ben van Bruggen, of van Bruggen Urbanism who coordinated and chaired the event on behalf of the Place Alliance, and the Place Quality Group.

·         The event clearly demonstrated that there is great value in peer review – and this is the fundamental definition of design review, the review of a scheme design by experts.

·         The speakers also showed that there is a lot more going on than people are generally aware of.   Many people think they are not doing design review when in fact they are.  It could be an urban design forum organised to discuss a scheme, or sitting down with an applicant to discuss the design – these are all forms of design review.   What design review isn’t are things such as the review of a neighbourhood plan, or policy documents strategy, or an examination of the future of a high street –these are is more like a project rather than review of a project.   There are other tools including community involvement, but this is not design review – the review of a scheme by experts, though it may be a wise to involve councillors or community representatives through the panel or as observers.   It is important to choose the right tools for the right circumstance.

·         As to public involvement, it is important to make comments publicly available, so that a pool of knowledge can develop.  The more the design review process is privatised, the more there is a risk that this knowledge will not get beyond the panel. 

·         The expert role of the design review panels cannot be overstressed.  In a world that is ruled by procedures, and doctrine, the independence of the panel can be essential in countering the dogmatic or institutional approaches that are sometimes encountered.

·         There are still difficulties in conveying clearly what is meant by good or bad design, using a language that professionals, developers and politicians can all understand.  Without a common language the debate about design quality will always be vulnerable to claims of elitism.  

·         More co-ordination and collaboration is needed with the aim of raising standards and ensuring bad practice doesn't prevail. 


 Next steps – An opportunity to get involved

The Place Quality Group  will be taking these issues forward.  Everyone is welcome to join.  To express interest, please contact the Place Alliance.