Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission – Call for Evidence?

I read the recent announcements that the Commission for BBBB have decided to start their activities with a ‘call for evidence’ with a sinking heart. Am I alone in thinking this is absolutely the wrong place to start?

Following passage through The Houses of Parliament, The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was dissolved by the Conservative Government on 21 January 2012 via statutory instrument, with Tourism and Heritage Minister at the time, John Penrose saying “CABE did a lot of good work and much of it will continue in different places. The organisation may be coming to an end under the order, but its work and the principles that it embodied will continue. I hope and expect that the public sector’s commitment to good design in our built environment will continue, too.”

The aim of CABE was to improve quality, or ‘beauty’ (in its latest iteration). Good design principles haven’t changed. So why on earth would the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission’ now propose to spend more hundreds of thousands of pounds, untold hours from professionals and consultancies, and take a couple of years to get to basically the same place?

Located (hidden away) in the National Archives is the CABE website[1]; transferred there on 18 January 2011, just 17 days after its last publication on 1st January 2011. It holds an immense library of pretty much everything CABE did in its 12 years of existence. This includes 309 publications, across 47 categories/subjects, including public space; planning; housing; neighbourhoods; the value of design; parks and green spaces; regeneration; streets; school design; and of course, design review. The design review process as advocated by CABE remains an excellent way of raising design standards: requiring rigorous design evolution and clear articulation by project professionals to be undertaken prior to engaging in a formal peer review process to ensure the best possible design for a new, expanded or regenerated place.

At DLA, our multiple experiences with design review panels were overall very positive, our main frustration being that some of the panel members selected for various projects – particularly the large scale ‘new places’ that DLA is well known for and has so much experience – simply didn’t have the required credible experience to be able to review such projects. In the main, the panels were chaired by excellent professionals such as Ben van Bruggen, who ensured that a proportionate, balanced and constructive view was given.

CABE’s 309 publications – prepared in a measured and comprehensible way – took 12 years to produce and did raise the bar for design quality. Can we afford the time and cost of going through this process again when design quality is given such little relative weight at present, but development at speed to deliver new homes and jobs is an absolute priority?

Have good design principles changed that much that we need to re-invent the wheel yet again? No, of course they haven’t. Please, please please, let’s use the knowledge and evidence gained, and numerous comprehensive publications already in the system to get design back on the main agenda as quickly as possible. Review, rebrand, refresh, of course; put in place a new ‘champion’; absolutely – someone to be the ‘face’ and drive behind it – but let’s not take another 12 years to build the same body of guidance and evidence.

Having looked through the matters and questions posed in the recent call for evidence, are there any elements that could not be answered exceptionally well by re-activating the information and documents safely stored (hidden away) in the National Archive?

Simon Pugh is a Partner at David Lock Associates Ltd. The views expressed are his own.