30. Goodbye CABE … long live CABE

The great New Labour project was tracked during its period in power (1997 to 2010) by a second smaller scale project with potentially longer-lasting impacts as enshrined in the built environment.  This was the attempt to address in a more systematic manner questions of design in the built environment through government action.  The most high profile and significant expression of this was the work of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), which, from its creation in 1999 to April this year actively campaigned for, promoted, enabled, researched, prescribed solutions to, and led the cause of better architectural, urban and public space design in England.

CABE – responding to the design problematic?

CABE might be viewed as part of an attempt, through ‘active government’, to curb, in the public interest, the failure of the market to fully recognise the importance of good design.  But, given the absence of any regulatory framework through which to direct the actions of others and thereby achieve its ends, CABE might be seen as the ‘David’ of design against the ‘Goliath’ of the property market.  Thus with grant-in-aid income (at its height) of around £11.5 million per annum, the investment in CABE represents a public investment of just 0.02% of the £60,000 million or so spent on new construction each year in England.  Seen in this light, CABE was clearly in a subordinate role to the market, an influencer rather than a regulator, although one nevertheless able to deploy a range of still potentially powerful tools to achieve its desired ends; namely better design.  These included:

  • Evidence – the conduct of research in order to build an evidence base about design and design process, as a means to forward well supported arguments about the value and importance of design and how to improve it
  • Publicity – the conduct of campaigns and the publicising of evidence relating to design in order to improve awareness about design and to build support for actions to improve it
  • Information sharing – making available information about existing case studies and perceived good practice in readily available and digestible formats
  • Guidance – the more prescriptive drawing together of lessons from the range of CABE activities in order to advocate particular approaches to aspects of the design agenda and its constituent processes
  • Improvement tools – the development of tools for use by professionals and non-professionals in the design process and to evaluate design outcomes
  • Assistance – making available targeted expert assistance on projects as a means to directly influence design outcomes
  • Monitoring – monitoring the outcomes from the development process (notably housing) across the country in order to evaluate the state of the nation, in design terms, and whether improvement in design can be detected
  • Persuading – working (often behind the scenes) to influence key decision-makers –including politicians – about the importance of design and to encourage greater attention to such concerns in policy and the development process
  • Coalition building – the construction of wider coalitions of interest in the cause of achieving better design through making alliances and bringing together key stakeholders
  • Education – the direct provision of educative materials and programmes for professionals, non-professionals and children to advance the design agenda
  • Evaluation – the review of key projects through impartial expert opinion and the public airing of the resulting project evaluations with the potential for both praise and constructive advice, but also, occasionally, public humiliation.

Good design – an a-political project

The particular history of CABE means that it will always be closely associated with the New Labour project.  Despite this, the subject-matter of its attention – the pursuit of better design in the built environment – remains largely a-political – and indeed CABE’s predecessor, the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC), was established under a Conservative administration (in 1924).  Nevertheless, some have argued that the pursuit of better design is an elitist concern and therefore associate the regulation of design with the right.  In such cases, generally, design is confused with a narrow concern for aesthetics, rather than with the more fundamental issues around functionality, sustainability, liveability and equity that a concern for urban design represents.  By contrast, others conflate attempts to correct market failure through the action of government with the left and see attempts to control design as the needless imposition of barriers to change and innovation within the free-market.

In the UK, a more concerted effort (of which CABE is part) to positively address questions of design in the built environment through public policy began under the last Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment of the Thatcher/Major era, namely John Gummer.  Acting on the basis of personal interest in questions of urban quality, but also in the face of growing criticism about the deterioration of the built environment, Gummer transformed the policy environment from ‘we don’t do design’, to a recognition that a well designed built environment can deliver significant public benefits.  Under him, urban design became a new focus for design policy, moving in the process away from one characterised by a view of design as aesthetics that had previously dominated policy, and decisively moving design from the proscribed list (as far as public intervention was concerned) to the prescribed one.

This move provided a firm basis for the equally decisive move of architectural and urban design up the political agenda after 1997.  CABE was part of this and arose out of the recommendations of the Urban Task Force led by Lord Richard Rogers for the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.  In these, the design-led regeneration / intensification of England’s cities was advanced as the prescription for the then massive housing projections that needed to be accommodated in the south-east, and for the flight from the inner cities in the north and elsewhere.  As well as revised policy on design (which took a little longer to emerge – PPS1 being published in 2005), CABE was established as a (perhaps the) key part of the new governance infrastructure that would deliver on this challenging agenda, with Jon Rouse, the former Deputy Chair of the Urban Task Force, appointed as CABE Chief Executive to lead this drive.

From these beginnings, CABE and the design agenda continued to prosper throughout the New Labour years, with landmark achievements such as the publication of By Design, launching Building for Life, Value of Urban Design research, the Manual for Streets, CABE housing design audits, the Sustainable Cities resource, and the re-commitment to the design agenda in World Class Places (under Gordon Brown), marking the way, alongside the ongoing day to day design review, enabling, education and research work of the organisation.  Moreover, in the run up to the 2010 election, the Conservatives re-committed themselves to this same agenda, arguing as part of their Open Source Planning policy green paper that “The quality of the built environment is crucial in creating liveable communities. We want to encourage the creation of buildings which are practical, sustainable, affordable and attractive, and also deliver social goals, for instance by ‘designing out’ crime. We must promote the highest standards of architecture and design. Not only is this a desirable end in itself, but it is an important factor in encouraging communities to support new development”.  Yet, six months after coming to power, the Conservative-led coalition government announced the withdrawal of funding from CABE.

Design is different … and essentially local

During the New Labour years, the role and influence (and size) of CABE continued to grow, with the Government continuing to charge the Commission with new roles and responsibilities such as becoming its champion for green spaces (CABE Space), a role in training and education (e.g. CABE’s Urban Design Summer Schools), roles in key regeneration initiatives (e.g. enabling for the Growth Areas, within the Housing Market Renewal programmes and in the delivery of Sea Change, an attempt to use culture as the means to regenerate English seaside resorts), a review role for Building Schools for the Future, and design review for the 2012 Olympics.  In time this led to criticism (as part of a wider critique of Government generally) that CABE had become too large and had lost its clear focus, criticism responded to by Richard Simmons (Chief Executive from 2004 to 2011) that the organisation was only taking on functions that it had been specifically asked to (and funded) by Government to carry out.  Others had long contested the need for a national organisation to advise on design at all, particularly architects aggrieved by its design review processes who regularly questioned the need for what they saw as its authoritarian taste police.  Yet others continued a further long-term critique of CABE that it was too cosy with key figures in the industry which compromised its independence and its ability to be robust when required.

The part these types of criticisms played in the organisation’s most recent history is as yet unknown, certainly CABE defended its role, integrity, processes and achievements robustly throughout its life, not least in a number of formal reviews of its performance, and in submissions to government spending reviews.  Nevertheless the announcement of the organisation’s demise following the autumn 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review and the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ that followed was met with cheers and jeers in almost equal measure.  The responses revealed something of the challenging nature of public policy in this area, and how design will always be different from many of the ‘big ticket’ policy remits in decisive and important ways:

  • The design / development arena is highly fragmented and contested, and does not have the sort of strong, unified professional voices that are found in, for example, health or education.
  • Many professionals involved in delivering design / development solutions are not designers professionals and seek to balance their ‘non-expert’ judgement of design objectives against other public and private goals.
  • Public policy aspirations on design in the built environment need largely to be delivered through the auspices of the private sector acting in the market, and in this respect are largely out of the direct control of the public sector.
  • The notion of good design (despite the best endeavours of CABE) remains a somewhat intangible and debatable (some would argue, subjective) concept that varies from place to place and is not amenable to simplistic one-size-fits-all prescriptions.
  • The objectives of the design agenda remain poorly understood by decision-makers (and some professionals) who continue to equate it with narrow aesthetic debates or with a sense that design is a luxury that can be cut in bad times.
  • Design objectives (and processes) are often difficult to measure and impacts are difficult to attribute, and are therefore not amenable to centrally driven performance management approaches or targets.
  • The pursuit of better design in the built environment is a long-term project, requiring periods of ten years plus before tangible impacts can be felt from policy decisions or from innovations in process.

All the above characteristics mean that design does not lend itself naturally to public debate, to easy nation-wide policy solutions, or to the constraints of short-term political cycles.  At the same time, key dimensions of design (although not necessarily those that design professionals endlessly debate) continue to be matters of great concern to local communities, in particular those associated with the liveability of place.  As a consequence, as the national urban policy moves on to a ‘localism’ agenda, for example through the desire of the Coalition Government to see a new layer of Neighbourhood Plans in England, design is likely to come more to the fore, although now without such a strong national voice to guide and assist in the process.

CABE-large to CABE-light (and beyond)

In the end, reports of the demise of CABE were premature and CABE has risen again from the ashes in the form of Design Council CABE.  It seems that when faced with the unseemly sight of other organisations fighting over the corpse of CABE in order to offer new market-based alternatives to the core services it offered, namely design review and enabling, the Government baulked and decided that the organisation still had a role.  The result is a much smaller CABE (a fifth of its previous size) although now within the Design Council and with Government funding to offer scaled down versions of these same core services.  Thus on the 1st April the new organisation began its life and immediately announced a consultation into the future of design review to be headed by Peter Bishop (whose own former organisation Design for London has itself recently undergone a shrinking and repositioning process).

Looking at the new organisation, one might conclude that CABE has simply returned to the sort of role it occupied during its previous incarnation as the RFAC.  Yet the RFAC was a marginal organisation at best, and although it had its victories it was never in a position to drive a design agenda of the sort that CABE was able to do.  That said, the position of CABE within the Design Council will surely (in time) allow the organisation to broaden its horizons again, not least as this Government, like all others since 1992, comes to realise the essential value of a well designed built environment, the critical role of design in all good local planning, and that these things can not be left to the market alone.  Personally I wish Design Council CABE the very best of luck!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


May 2011