Stuart Lipton’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has been reviewing projects and educating clients for nine months. Is it making Britain better designed?
The government’s nine-month-old architecture champion has just met for its 10th session. Set up to replace the 75-year-old Royal Fine Art Commission, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was intended to be more open, democratic, proactive and regionally based. More than just an architecture critic, the CABE would demonstrate the social and commercial value of good design and advise public and private clients on how to achieve it. Its chairman, Stuart Lipton, was seen as a man who commands the respect of designers, developers and government alike.

So, how is the CABE doing? Has it persuaded the government, clients and the public to aspire to good design? Has it overcome the obstacles it faced when it was set up – its location within the relatively powerless Department for Culture, Media and Sport, its lack of resources (a paltry £1.5m a year), the legacy of the RFAC’s “ivory tower” image and a Treasury that favours budgetary savings over good design?

The first two difficulties persist. Arts minister Alan Howarth has unsuccessfully lobbied for an increase in the CABE’s budget from £1.5m to £10m. Lipton, while still campaigning, is sanguine about the issue. “Look, I’m the new kid on the block,” he says. “I have no doubt that as we get more people on board and expand our base and workload, we will get more funding.”

Meanwhile, the CABE’s activities have been restricted by lack of resources, particularly the establishment of a regional network of architecture centres, with links to the RIBA centres and the “cultural consortia” within the eight new regional development agencies.

The DCMS has been slow to make appointments to the CABE. Only eight commissioners have been appointed so far out of a total of 15, and those eight are shouldering a heavier workload than expected. Lipton has been devoting two-and-a-half days a week to the commission, although he plans to reduce this when former urban taskforce secretary Jon Rouse becomes chief executive in October. Each commissioner works a one-day week.

Only three out of six committees are up and running: design review, government procurement and project enabling. Two other committees, dedicated to the regions and education, will be launched in the next few weeks.

Lipton says the CABE’s greatest success has been to create a modern, plural, proactive image, “changing the viewpoint, showing that we’re here to work with people, not talk at them; convincing people that good architects and good clients make great projects; and being helpful, friendly and knowledgeable as well as architecturally distinguished”.

Anecdotal evidence bears this out. Architects say design review sessions at St James’ Square are no longer a one-sided “grilling by the headmaster”. Under deputy chief executive Peter Stewart and commissioner Paul Finch, formerly editor of Architects’ Journal, design reviews are more of an open discussion. Tim Hamilton of architect Hamilton Associates, whose £75m scheme at Knightsbridge Green passed before the RFAC and the CABE, says: “There is a huge change. The CABE is more friendly, more democratic, more of a genuine public service, less of an exercise in personal power. Before, if you were ‘in’, you were in; if you were a commercial architect, you were going to the rack.”

Laurie Chetwood, whose £80m redevelopment of Romford town centre went through the RFAC and the CABE, concurs: “We got a much more reasonable and logical response the second time around [with the CABE].”

After September, design reviews will be held in the more accessible location of the top floor of Elizabeth House, above Waterloo Station. “It has a great view of London, and it’s in an area of great regeneration and opportunity,” says Lipton. But he adds: “It is short term as we hope eventually to occupy a new, modern home.”

With design review a reduced part of its remit, (it reviews about 80 projects of national and strategic importance, compared with the 350-odd seen by the RFAC), the CABE has concentrated on improving government procurement and project enabling.

The government procurement committee chaired by Lipton has certainly produced results. Prime minister Tony Blair has gone on record urging government departments to improve the quality and design of public buildings. At a cross-departmental group of ministers, convened last month as a result of Lipton’s lobbying, group chair Lord Falconer asked each department to produce examples of current and proposed projects and to invite a senior minister to be design champion.

The CABE has contributed to two government guides: How to Achieve Design Quality in PFI Projects, published by the Treasury in March, and By Design, a guide for planners on using planning structures to promote urban design, published by the DETR last month. Soon, it will participate in an NHS Estates seminar on how design lessons learned from the second wave of private finance initiative hospitals can be applied to the next wave. The CABE has joined with the new Office of Government Commerce to set up design workshops for government clients. “The idea is to get them together with architects, contractors and funders to think through how quality can be achieved,” says CABE senior executive officer Robert Bargery.

CABE’s project-enabling committee has also had significant impact since it was launched in January. Chaired by architect Sunand Prasad, the committee has so far matched design professionals on its panel with 10 fledgeling projects, private and public, ranging in value from £70 000 to £50m. Panel members advise clients on brief writing and procuring a design team. Projects include several major government initiatives, such as the Department for Education and Employment’s £540m Sure Start programme. The CABE is involved in four out of the 12 Sure Start pre-school education and health centres, in Leicester, Nottingham, Haringey and Plymouth.

The commission is also set to assist with a new generation of job centres to be launched after next year’s merger between the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. Bargery says: “We are looking at how good design might impact on service delivery. With these schemes in government, you can kill a lot of birds with one stone. With an exemplar or model project, you can create a benchmark to be exceeded on 100 or 200 individual schemes.”

Bargery acknowledges that the CABE is targeting projects related to social inclusion and quality of life. He says: “If we can prove that architecture can deliver the kind of society the government wants, we are more likely to get funding for these initiatives.”

Bargery, who worked for the RFAC before the CABE, sums up the difference between them. “The RFAC was limited in what it could do by the late stage at which it looked at projects. The CABE set up the enabling panel to get to schemes early, so they don’t have to come back to the design review committee. It’s idealistic, but we aim to nip bad design in the bud.”

What is CABE? Set up last September to replace the Royal Fine Art Commission, the CABE’s aim was to educate government, councils and private clients in good architecture. This includes advice on procurement, architect selection and brief writing. This will be done through six main committees: design review, education, technology/process, government, project enabling and the regions. It is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. CABE: a quick history June 1999 Stanhope chief executive Stuart Lipton is named chairman of the CABE. September 1999 First CABE meeting takes place. October 1999 After consulting the CABE, the Lord Chancellor’s department drives up design standards on its private finance initiative projects. Later in the month, the CABE slams Foster and Partners’ Walbrook House scheme in the City as “not worthy of this important site” in its first design review meeting. March 2000 The Treasury brings out guidelines to insist on good design in private finance initiatives following work carried out with the CABE. April 2000 Lipton blames lack of cash for hampering the CABE’s push into the regions. May 2000 The DETR brings out an urban design guide, produced in conjunction with the CABE. Lipton attends a meeting of the newly formed Ministerial Group on Public Buildings, which called for every government department to appoint a design champion.