Design watchdog on the defensive after critical submissions over conflicts of interest and accountability

Design watchdog CABE has hit back at criticism made to a Commons select committee, describing some of the allegations made against it as “nonsense”.

Parliament’s ODPM committee is investigating all of CABE’s activities after the resignation of chairman Sir Stuart Lipton. Lipton stepped down after concerns were expressed over perceived conflicts of interest between his role at the commission and his chairmanship of developer Stanhope.

CABE dismissed some of the submissions in the first round of hearings, which drew attention to alleged defects in its accountability procedures and design review process. It also denied other claims about conflicts of interest.

The committee has yet to hear evidence from Keith Hill, the planning minister, and Richard Simmons, the CABE chief executive. These are expected to take place next month.

So far attention has been focused on submissions from a councillor in Croydon, Surrey. Adrian Dennis linked the Stanhope’s role in the Croydon Gateway regeneration project with the influence exerted by Lipton when he was head of CABE.

Dennis said Lipton’s 75% stake in Stanhope meant he could have influenced the 11 Stanhope projects reviewed by CABE, one of which was Croydon Gateway.

Dennis claimed that in meetings between Stanhope and the council, “the line between Sir Stuart’s role as a private developer and his chairmanship of CABE was blurred”.

He said: “What I believe will become clear to you is that during 2003 the chairman of CABE firstly sought to influence a major public authority to favour his private development interests over those of a developer committed to delivering the project in accordance with the authority’s democratically formulated policies, despite knowledge of the council’s formal commitment to that other party.”

Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford, a member of the select committee, rejected the councillor’s comments. He said they were motivated by personal animosity between him and Lipton. He cited an internal Labour party news sheet written by Dennis in which he dubbed a member of Lipton’s team “Mr Slime”.

The chairman of CABE sought to favour his private developments

Adrian Dennis, Croydon council

Dennis said the letter was written in a jokey style and that the council remained on good terms with Stanhope and its partner, Schroders.

A CABE spokesperson said that Dennis’ comments had been “dismissed out of hand”, and noted that most submissions made were positive. The official also rejected claims made by bodies such as SAVE Britain’s Heritage that CABE lacked sufficient heritage expertise.

He said: “There is a wealth of experience on the design review panel, not least in the fact that the chair, Les Sparks, is a commissioner of English Heritage. We are also about to appoint a heritage commissioner. It’s claptrap.”

CABE also faced criticism from Liz Peace, head of the British Property Federation. She said that CABE ought to focus more on providing strong pre-application advice to local authorities and desist from publishing “airy-fairy” publications.

Other submissions warned against CABE being seen as having ownership of “the gospel truth”, and that local authorities should not be afraid of overruling its advice.

The committee also heard submissions from Michael Hussey, London director of developer Land Securities and Mira Bar-Hillal, the property correspondent of the London Evening Standard.

The select committee will reconvene on 13 December to hear responses from CABE and the planning minister.

The CABE and Stanhope: the connections

  • CABE and Stanhope shared the same firm of solicitors: Herbert Smith. On 11 June 2003 Herbert Smith partner Patrick Robinson sent a letter to CABE chief executive Jon Rouse to ask the commission to endorse Stanhope's "design protocol", which was intended to align Stanhope's development with CABE's prior design review of the Croydon Gateway scheme. Robinson wrote: "We would not be averse to CABE as the beneficiary of the protocol having direct means of enforcing the planning obligation rather than letting the matter sit with Croydon as planning authority." Critics say this amounted to CABE's own solicitor writing on a private developer's behalf to CABE's chief executive to ask that the commission usurp the enforcement responsibilities of Croydon. On 23 June, Rouse wrote back refusing to discuss the issue, saying that CABE had made its comments on the Croydon project though its design review committee.

  • Sir Stuart Lipton was chairman of CABE's remuneration committee and a member of the operations committee. The operations committee was chaired by Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon, which worked as a quantity surveyor for Stanhope.

  • Martin Moore of Prudential Property Investment Managers was recently appointed a member of the design review panel at CABE. Moore's company owned a part of the Croydon Gateway site. Prudential recently sold its holding to Stanhope, but retains a mortgage over it.

What the committee heard ...

If a message goes out that the objectives of the planning system can be easily defeated by obstructive private interests, then the planning system will become weak and ineffectual
Adrian Dennis, Croydon councillor

As CABE has evolved there has been a blurring of boundaries and the interface has become skewed towards promoting development
SAVE Britain's Heritage

CABE does its design review so imperfectly that the downside outweighs the benefits
Mira Bar-Hillel, property correspondent, Evening Standard