Design review is integral to the projects I work on. Clients recognise the value of having a custodian of the design and critical friend, giving design guidance and planning advice. But this can’t guarantee a planning consent. Having spent more than a decade doing design review, from administrating the CABE’s National Panel to chairing a regional panel, I believe that the aim is to help make the project better, not simply to make it acceptable in planning terms.
A lack of funding means that skilled planners and urban designers capable of knowing good design when they see it are disappearing from local authorities. Those that remain need support. They should not be undermined by a poor design review service.
I worry that many panels will be poorly conceived, inadequately resourced and lack the skills to critique a scheme in the round; to know the difference between fact and opinion. Although well intentioned, many local architecture and conservation panels had a poor reputation, consisted only of a few local architects and tended to be partisan and introspective. CABEs influence brought transparency, independence and expertise; whatever your opinion of the outcome of a review, you trusted it was thoroughly considered and fair.
Relying too heavily on design review for planning decisions is not an adequate substitute for skilled and experienced planners, urban designers and architects within the local authority who are able to interpret the panel’s views. Used appropriately design review makes clear and practical recommendations, complementing skilled local authority officers and the planning process. Unfortunately, the temptation now might be to cut skills at the local authority and favour poor design review instead.