Cabe is 10, but it’s not all party hats and streamers. Emily Wright reports on the high-profile successes and failures of its first decade, and asks four industry figures whether it deserves a second

As Cabe prepares for its 10th birthday next week, it appears to have much to celebrate. In the past decade it has conducted 3,000 design reviews, helped the clients of 650 large public sector schemes and persuaded 85% of local authorities to refer to it on projects. More importantly, 70% of those councils went on to take planning decisions in accordance with its advice. So perhaps it was only fair reward when Grant Shapps, the shadow housing minister, gave his strongest hint yet that the body is likely to survive the bonfire of the quangos expected if the Conservatives win the next general election.

Speaking at an RIBA conference, Shapps said: “Quangos are everywhere, but not all are bad organisations. It’s like people believing all bacteria is bad. Cabe may be one of the better bacteria. It has done a tremendous job of persuading people that design really, really matters.”

Why, then, isn’t it more popular with the construction industry? Many developers and contractors regard a Cabe design review at best as an irritating hurdle, and at worst as a threat to their investment. That is understandable: Cabe has become a kind of aesthetic risk to many projects. And to some extent it’s a tribute to its effectiveness and professionalism. Its predecessor, the Royal Fine Arts Commission, had eight permanent staff – its chairman, Tory dandy Lord St John of Fawsley, working four days a week unpaid. Cabe, meanwhile, has 135 paid staff, not to mention 400 design advisers, and 16 commissioners.

More serious criticisms have been levelled at the commission by MPs over the years. One report in March 2005 attacked its design review process for its lack of transparency and “cursory” nature, and criticised its membership for being overly influenced by developers. Although Sir Stuart Lipton, the chairman of Stanhope, had departed the previous June, eight of the commissioners who provide oversight of Cabe’s activities had links to his company.

In the past few years, even Cabe’s traditional supporters, the architects, have voiced mixed feelings. Some have accused the organisation of straying away from what it was set up to achieve. They argue that it is pushing its own preferred design values and ideas. Richard Simmons, Cabe’s chief executive, denies this. He says: “In terms of style, there’s no agenda at Cabe. What we support is good architecture and urban design, based on a set of principles tried and tested since Vitruvius. If you narrowly define buildings as ‘traditional’ or ‘modernist’, you miss what matters: their scale and massing, their efficiency, whether they’re sustainable, and how they make the streets and spaces feel and work.

Simmons is also at pains to point out that Cabe has no political allegiances. “Politicians of every hue are saying it’s important to create good quality places. And MORI research this summer shows that the public supports this: nearly nine out of 10 people think that better quality buildings and public space improves their quality of life. So design clearly matters to both the government and the voters.”

However, given the likely climate over the next parliament, the best way for Cabe to preserve itself is to be inexpensive. Simmons says: “We’ll tackle the cuts through efficiency savings, by generating more income, and by delivering more work through partnerships. But what we won’t compromise on is our independence. It won’t always be popular, but developers and councillors know that what they get is practical advice from professionals with no stake in the project but a great deal of experience from successful schemes elsewhere.”

“Cabe itself is actually pretty small. And yet it’s more than design review. Our enabling service has so far got alongside the clients of 650 major public sector projects, helping them make informed, long-term decisions. We run design training. We campaign. And in just six years, 230,000 young people have got involved in our education projects, so that this country has thoughtful, ambitious clients and consumers in the future. esses …

The job of steering Cabe through its next 10 years belongs to Paul Finch, or will do once he has taken over from Sir John Sorrell as chairman in December. To find out what awaits him, and to mark the commission’s 10th birthday, Building has summarised some of the organisation’s key successes and failures so far. We have also called on a panel of industry figures to share their recommendations for how it can improve if, as looks increasingly likely, it is granted a reprieve by a newly elected Tory government.

Reviewing cabe

Projects that it rescued …

The 2012 media centre

This is the project it can hold up to argue that it does have teeth. The centre’s design was overhauled by the Olympic Delivery Authority in June after Cabe’s 2012 design review panel slammed the “extraordinary banality” of the international broadcasting element. It said: “In our view, it is simply not good enough as currently proposed. We would go so far as to say that its continued presence would blight rather than enhance the Olympic legacy.”

The Shard

The Shard

Cabe criticised the original design by Broadway Malayan and voiced doubts about the building’s green credentials. The design review also questioned the value of the 10m wind turbine on the roof and the landscaping at the foot of the building, calling for a redesign of the public access facilities. The Broadway Malyan proposal was subsequently refused planning permission and international starchitect Renzo Piano was brought on board. The new design was well received by Southwark council, as well as architects Richard Rogers and John Worthington.

Partnerships for Schools

In May last year, Cabe joined forces with Partnerships for Schools and in September the government announced a minimum design standard for schools. In May this year, it was announced that Cabe would be given the power to stop badly designed schools from starting on site. Under the proposals, Cabe’s schools design panel will continue to assess sample Building Schools for the Future projects, but only those graded “very good” or “pass” will go on site.

… and projects it didn’t

Olympic Parklands

Olympic parkland

Cabe was ignored on this one. Designs for the parklands surrounding the Olympic site (below) were approved by the Olympic Delivery Authority in February this year despite the watchdog saying it was “disappointing that key aspects of the [main] stadium’s immediate setting remain unresolved” and that there should be more clarity from the organising committee on the long-term fate of green areas.

Suffolk Tesco

In June last year, Cabe admitted that no review panel members had visited a site in Suffolk where it had subsequently approved designs for a Tesco store. The body had to defend its position after endorsing the site – proposed in 2006 – after English Heritage advised against it and residents and campaigners expressed concerns over the suitability of the design in the area.

Ten schools

Ten schools

Although Cabe has had great successes in the educational sector in the past year, in February 2008 it suffered an embarrassing setback when 10 schools it deemed unfit for purpose were built anyway. The 10 were put to Cabe in the first round of submissions to the body’s schools design review panel. Cabe was given £2m by the government to review the Building Schools for the Future programme and deemed 10 out of the 11 “not yet good enough”. The schools all won planning consent with few or no changes; however, in the process they called into question the effectiveness of Cabe and its value for money.

What next for cabe?

Shrink and go back to basics

Robert Adam

Robert Adam, director, Robert Adam Architects

Cabe needs to look at what it first set out to do – act in the best interests of the public. I don’t think it does this any more, but instead just puts forward establishment views. It is now a peer group review and to claim any objection to this is nonsense. I explain this to clients and tell them that Cabe is where you look only to get an architectural opinion of people in a certain group, on a certain style of architecture. And even that depends on the fashion at the time. It needs to refocus.

The main problem as far as I can see is that Cabe has been left to grow and grow, so has become too broad. What it needs to do is get smaller again, limit its objectives to simply design review. It also needs to be much more honest with its reports so it is not just channelling the information it wants people to read, but is passing on real data on behalf of the public.

In terms of how to survive, my advice to Cabe would be to refocus sooner rather than later and get in there first with cuts and reforms because this could be its saving grace under a Tory government. It may or may not survive the Conservatives but it is more likely to if it has shown willingness to scale back and become more effective.

Prepare for tough times ahead

Grant Shapps

Grant Shapps, shadow housing minister

In principle, I think Cabe is good to have but we are living through tough times where money is tight and organisations will have to find different ways to get funding. I would say Cabe is still in a good position as it has done good work, or so I hear from planning officers in my local area, and I would disagree with those people who say the body doesn’t have teeth. I don’t think people just dismiss what it says. But I would stress again that there is a massive deficit to be made up and people need to be realistic about public finances. There will simply be a lot less money and Cabe needs to prepare for this.

If we do win the next election, making Cabe’s recommendations mandatory would not fit at all well with our vision. If you have a quango it should remain as such. Cabe claims it can promote great design to create a better quality of life for people and that should be enough to prove its worth. I wish it well on its 10th birthday.


Piers Gough

Piers Gough, partner, CZWG Architects

I would be very surprised if Cabe didn’t survive a Tory government. It has always been consulted in the past and has worked very closely with the government. Cabe is a young, lively institution with a lot of clout.

In terms of worries over public funds being slashed and a bonfire of the quangos, Cabe’s budget is so small there would be little point in cutting it. Compared with English Heritage’s budget, for example, Cabe is in a different league. We all know that cuts are coming, but there is little to be gained by getting rid of Cabe. Someone’s got to review schemes, particularly new housing, and Cabe does that pretty cost-effectively. There is talk of the Homes and Communities Agency taking over, but that will be an expensive move.

I actually think Cabe should be given more funding and allowed to expand. In the current climate this is unlikely, but so much good could be done. The body has had a positive effect on schools, transforming educational resources, and the same could be done regarding health. It would be incredible if Cabe were able to do this for hospitals as well – it would be money well spent. Hospitals are now being built to last for years and the thought of them being constructed badly for all this time is just too awful to think about. Another improvement would be to engage more with housebuilders, but again this relies on funds.

Is it necessary?

John Cherrington

John Cherrington, schools design director, Steffian Bradley Architects

What the hell is Cabe really? It’s a gang of inexperienced professionals set up to assess the work of experienced professionals. It’s an appalling state of affairs that we need this architectural police force. First, if you are going to set yourself up to criticise the work of exceptional architects, you should be exceptional yourself. Which most Cabe commissioners are not.

In the beginning, the idea of introducing an advisory body was a good one. Its original raison d’être – to advise on how to use the same money to produce good buildings as you would need to produce bad ones – was fine. But it has become less about that over the past 10 years and more about how the body and the people within it can achieve more influence. The latest is this talk of making its recommendations mandatory. What, then, if an architect loses a commission over a criticism made by Cabe? Does the quango have insurance if it is then proven that the criticism was incorrect? Because I am sure there will be lots of legal cases as a result.

Of course, there are incompetencies in architecture like in any industry, but Cabe focuses on the results, not the cause, which is ridiculous. I think the Tories will dump them because they hate this kind of control and will see it as a dispensable socialist quango. And I don’t think the industry will suffer in the slightest if it gets shovelled out. I don’t see it has done any good in 10 years. That said, we do accept the status quo and will work with Cabe if it survives.

A 60-second guide to Cabe’s

According to its own review, to be published later this month, Cabe has conducted 3,000 design reviews in the past 10 years. Last year, the commission spent £650,000 out of its £12m annual grant on design reviews – at an average cost of £2,500 per review.

Cabe has produced a mountain of guidance in this area for planners and developers. In the past 18 months it has helped 50 local authorities prepare local development frameworks. Over the past seven years, it has provided technical support on 370 housing projects. In 2008/09, Cabe reviewed 205 separate housing schemes.

Since 2002, Cabe has reviewed 393 school projects and given practical advice to 100 local authorities investing public money in their schools. So far, the cost of Cabe’s involvement with Building Schools for the Future has been 70p for every £1,000 of construction costs. Cabe’s audit of secondary school design in 2006 showed that 50% of schools completed in the previous five years were up to standard. Its recommendations to create a schools design panel and introduce minimum design standards were accepted by government.

The Olympics
The London 2012 design panel was set up in 2006. Its 16 members includes Glenn Howells, Steve McGuckin and Richard Rogers. The panel gives independent design advice on all major Olympic and Paralympic projects. The key reviews are those of the main stadium, velodrome and aquatic centre, as well as the Olympic, Paralympic and legacy transformation masterplans.

Cabe’s Crossrail design watchdog was unveiled last October. Headed by architect and former commissioner Les Sparks, it also includes Ken Shuttleworth, Hanif Kara and Simon Allford. The panel will assess the designs for the exterior of seven station buildings, entrances and ticket halls, as well as for other parts of the development requiring consent from relevant planning authorities. This includes what will be built above and alongside the stations. The seven stations are Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel and Custom House.