On Thursday it recommended that no property developer should hold the chair of CABE because of potential conflicts of interest. The audit said that CABE had to be seen to be impartial when judging the design merits of building projects. These decisions can determine whether a scheme gets planning or not.
The audit warned that CABE risked creating a negative public perception if a CABE commissioner or chair was commercially involved in a project that was being judged by the design quango.
The Daily Telegraph this week printed two complaints about CABE's favourable design reviews of Stanhope projects. One of the complaints concerned an 11-storey office building proposed by Stanhope above South Kensington tube station. Around 800 letters of objection were submitted to Kensington council, but CABE still backed the design.
The audit does not suggest that there was any impropriety on Lipton's part, but it does say that it would be difficult to prove to the public that such judgments were impartial. This, says the audit, puts CABE's reputation on the line.
Lipton could be seen as a victim of his company's success. When he became the chairman of CABE in 1999 there was little conflict of interest as Stanhope was a modestly sized project managing firm rather than the property behemoth it is today.
The audit does accept that it is impossible for a commissioner to be completely impartial. It recognises that without a background in construction or architecture commissioners would not be able to make informed decisions about design. One way of reducing conflict of interests would be to appoint commissioners from the public sector, though this is not entirely satisfactory as it could result in biased opinions against commercial development.
The audit makes a number of recommendations to minimise the risk of conflicting interests. It says that CABE should carry out thorough risk assessments of the chair and design review panel chair, and says commissioners should also be asked to declare all their industry interests twice a year.
The audit is a tough report but a rigorously fair one. If CABE is to retain its hard earned reputation as an even-handed arbiter of design, its decision must be transparent and independent of all members' commercial interests.