David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, and the guy that will in future run Cabe, said this week the question of whether to keep the decade-old brand was open to question. He said it will be one of the things he will consult the industry about, in determining the long-term future of Cabe’s services.
Remember this is in an environment where the brutal slashing of funding today - by 75% - is just a precursor of the total loss of government support in two years time, so it inevitably raises question as to it long-term position at the Design Council.
The immediate reaction of Cabe-sympathetic folk, such as commissioner Ken Shuttleworth, is to hold their hands up in horror at the possibility. But is it so bad? It’s possible to knock Shuttleworth’s view as a knee jerk reaction from a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the body. Looked at independently, Cabe’s capacity and, most likely, function, will totally change in the new environment.
And while all those around the body claim they’ve been overwhelmed by support from government during the merger process, a complete cut to its funding from the culture department is hardly a ringing endorsement of what it’s been doing for ten years.
In addition Cabe is controversial with both developers and architects – the classic marmite phenomenon – people love it or hate it. For every message of support for a perceived rise in standards the body has brought to building design, you can find someone else ready to deride it as an interfering purveyor of the views of a self-appointed architectural elite, unconnected from the reality of the architecture people really like.
So given all this, is keeping the brand such a good idea?
Well, yes, actually. Shuttleworth is on to something. Like it or hate it, Cabe has achieved a notoriety and recognition within the construction industry that it would be hard to replicate with a new name. Of course some don’t appreciate the work it does, but everybody knows what it is, and has some idea of what it does. And a move to the Design Council is the perfect time to make appropriate changes to reflect the concerns many hold.
But its main role, design review, relies entirely on its opinion being trusted and regarded as influential. Councils that are making planning decisions have to know that a negative review from Cabe actually matters. And in this, Cabe is currently facing a huge threat – it is losing the explicit endorsement of government that it carries as a central government quango. In future, as a registered charity, albeit one with a royal charter, its biggest concern is likely to be whether councils start to think they don’t have to care what it says.
The government has said that “sustainable development” will be at the heart of the new planning system, and good design is clearly part of this. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Cabe, as part of the Design Council is the only organisation that can validate this. So it needs to guard its influence carefully.
In this environment, the best way Cabe can ensure it continues to have influence is by the strength of its brand. People know it, and it is trusted. If the work Cabe does is worth doing – and there is no doubt, if you listen to the testimony of red-blooded developers like Tony Pidgley that it has improved the design of countless developments – then it’s worth more under the Cabe name.