Open mike Remember how grimy our cities were until not so long ago? Well Cabe helped transform them by homing in on design quality, so its demise should worry us all, says Roger Madelin
There has been a dramatic improvement to our city centres in the past two decades with some solid, sustainable regeneration. But the institutions associated with that change are disappearing and their absence should be of concern to us all.
We face at least two years of uncertainty while the planning system changes, indeed as the state is reshaped. Demands on planners and services will grow while support shrinks
Cabe was accused by Ike Ijeh in Building of imposing a “totalitarian aesthetic” (29 October). Whatever that is supposed to mean, it’s not been Argent’s experience when seeking to create distinctive places on brownfield. What Cabe did keep pushing was the value of decent streets and spaces. I suspect some architects dislike Cabe precisely because it focuses on smart design rather than pursuing some kind of aesthetic agenda.
All this is even more relevant in tough times. We have learnt that if you start with quality, you have a much better chance of creating tenant and funder investment. Cabe helped to develop a more sophisticated and demanding market that understands the value of good design and how schemes can connect with their surroundings: you can see this with volume housebuilders beginning to respond to the pressure for better quality, with more of those companies adopting Building for Life as their benchmark.
The coalition’s approach to architecture and the built environment is shaped by two overarching drivers: reducing public spending and devolving decision making to the community, not least through new planning policy. These twin drivers mean that most development will be funded, at least in part, by the community, voluntary and commercial sectors, and that design questions will increasingly be in the hands of local people.
We face at least two years of uncertainty while the planning system changes, indeed as the state is reshaped. Demands on planners and services will grow while support shrinks. I don’t doubt that there is a public appetite for quality - three out of four people say they would welcome new housing if it were designed well and in keeping with the
local area. But knowing what you want doesn’t mean you know how to get it. Commissioning is complex, and who will
do the hand holding?
Cabe gave people the confidence to stand up for design quality, whether that meant giving a developer a second opinion or strengthening the arm of a planner. You can see it in bold commissions - from the Manchester Civil Justice Centre to Cranfields Mill in Ipswich. And projects like Liverpool One emerged better as a result of Cabe’s slating of early proposals.
It is worth remembering just how grubby inner cities used to feel not so long ago, how routine it was for cars to dominate every street and square, and how rare it was to come across any mixed-use development - decent or otherwise. We need a strong platform to support continued design-led regeneration, and to ensure that what is
there will be maintained and managed.
In my experience, the work that Cabe undertakes is not some added luxury, or rubber stamping, or the pursuit of some elitist aesthetic: it provides independent design and place-making advice that then enables the democratic process to do its work.
Maybe the way the service is delivered does need to be reviewed and maybe there is money to save but if we don’t have an independent, respected champion of design, we are highly likely to look back in a decade at many lost opportunities at best and some pretty bad developments at worst.
In some form what Cabe does must still be done. Often “simply” showing what not to do and what could be done, with a dispassionate, clear analysis, will result in a better solution.
The review and advice services have saved many millions of pounds not only in the “cost of the process” but also in a better value and lower cost end result. Much work has been undertaken to show the value of better buildings and better places; now we must put this work to good use.
Roger Madelin is joint chief executive of Argent Group