43. Towards a Place (Leadership) Council for England

In the last column in this series I explored The Farrell Review, and the wide ranging proposals it makes to reinvigorate the debate on design and the built environment in England.  For me, one of the most intriguing proposals in the report is the call for a Place Leadership Council (PLC) in relation to which Farrell makes a number of concrete proposals:

Place Leadership Council
  • First, that the Council should be led jointly by the public and private sectors; constituting a membership drawn 50% from Ministers from the relevant ministries and their chief ‘Place advisors’ (including a new Chief Architect), and 50% from what the report refers to as the PLACE professions (planning, landscape, architecture, conservation and engineering).
  • Second, with this membership the Council would be responsible for developing and monitoring relevant national ‘Place policy’ to be applied locally at the level of cities, towns and villages, whilst these entities would in turn feed their experiences back up to the new national body.
  • Third, the Place Leadership Council would advise and support policy and programme delivery that has an impact on places across Government, and, in particular, would support the drive for a more proactive system of local planning.
  • Finally, to do this, and to focus efforts on improving design quality in everyday places, it would produce a strategy and action plan within its first 6 months.
Supporting programme and policy delivery across government

Not a new CABE

Interestingly, this is also one of the more sketchy of the Farrell proposals, probably quite deliberately so given the inevitable comparisons (and allied sensitivities) that such a proposal would draw with the publically funded Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE); effectively closed by the Coalition government just three years ago.  In addition, the perceived close association between CABE and the New Labour project may leave some in the current government feeling distinctly uneasy about any sort of national design watchdog, or even any national policy on design, and reluctant to go down that route so soon after the demise of the last.

But that would be to misunderstand the politics of design, which, over most of the last century have largely been bipartisan.  Thus whilst CABE lasted just eleven years, its predecessor, the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC), a Conservative project, lasted some 75 years.  Set up following consternation over what 90 years ago was seen as the generally poor quality of civic design in the country, the RFAC first met in February 1924 two weeks into the first ever Labour Government.  However, it had been the previous Conservative administration under Stanley Baldwin that had set up the organisation under the leadership of the Conservative pier and politician the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, and it was the RFAC that developed and refined the process of design review.  Moreover, when in 1999 the RFAC closed its doors (or more correctly mutated into CABE) it was under another Conservative pier and politician, the charismatic Baron St John of Fawsley, who had been given his position by Margaret Thatcher but whom New Labour, perhaps unfairly, saw as running an old boys club on St James’s Square rather than the sort of more proactive organisation that was required and which CABE was to become.

More recently, before coming to power the Conservatives re-stated this commitment to design in an unequivocal statement about the importance of design quality in their Open Source Planning Green Paper.  They argued “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”[1].  In power these sentiments received further firm backing in the recently published National Planning Policy Framework that, if anything, boosts the strong emphasis on design quality inherited from the previous government, including a requirement (for the first time) that local planning authorities should have design review arrangements in place and refer major projects for national review[2].

In this regard, however, and perhaps reflecting the sensitivities already referred to above, it is not proposed in The Farrell Review that a Place Leadership Council would do design review (nor indeed ‘place review’ as Farrell re-envisages it) nor any of the more proactive roles such as enabling, education, campaigning, and research that CABE adopted to drive the design agenda during the noughties.  Instead, a high level policy and coordinating role is envisaged, quite different from and far more constrained than that occupied by CABE.  But even this will need a Government willing to look beyond its own recent decisions made in a context of the national debt crisis and some very tough and rapid public spending cuts, decisions that in ‘normal’ circumstances may have been made very differently.  Instead, leadership is now required to look to what might be right for the future.  At UCL, our research in this area may throw a little light on the subject.

Evaluating the governance of design in the built environment

In the dying days of the publically funded CABE, we at UCL were given unprecedented access to the organisation in order to gather data and safeguard key records so that a proper evaluation could be undertaken of the methods and impact of what, by any standards, was a globally unique organisation and an unparalleled experiment in the governance of design.  As, realistically, a proper evaluation of eleven years of work and many millions of pounds of public spending was going to take a considerable time to evaluate, I applied for and obtained support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a two year project that is now in its second year[3].

The research, involving extensive documentary analysis, wide ranging interviews, and a series of group discussions (reunions) is still on-going and therefore definitive conclusions would be pre-emptive.  It is nevertheless possible to draw on early findings from this research to reflect on the notion of a Place Leadership Council as proposed by The Farrell Review and perhaps put a little more meat on the bones of that idea.  First, a few reflections on CABE that might help us to understand and evaluate the proposition at hand.

Evaluating CABE, the reunions

A rock and a hard place

An important point to make is the seemingly obvious one that CABE was by no means universally popular.  Indeed, from its very start the organisation was often under fire from different players that it rubbed up against: sometimes architects (who hadn’t fared well in design reviews), sometimes politicians (whose policies seemed to be called into question on design grounds), sometimes professional institutes (who felt CABE was encroaching on their turf), and sometimes developers (who no longer had quite such a free hand).  Indeed, as one commentator suggested to us in jest, by the end CABE had pretty much alienated everyone which perhaps explained its demise.

That of course hugely overstates the case, as underpinning these tensions was a clear and seemingly popular agenda – the pursuit of design, particularly urban design, quality – that CABE pursued with great energy, initiative, leadership and (usually) focus for over a decade.  And whilst many quite legitimately criticise aspects of its activities, during the research we have found over-whelming support for much of what CABE did and a ready acceptance that the organisation played a huge role in significantly changing the perceived importance and actual delivery of design quality in England (and indirectly across the rest of the UK); in the process reshaping the whole landscape for the governance design.  Love it or loath it, CABE undoubtedly had a big impact, and most see that impact as a positive one if measured against its core objective of improving the standard of design in the built environment.  Equally, despite its achievements, it seems that CABE, as an organisation, was never well understood in terms of both its size and scope and its relationship to Government.

Therefore, whilst external perceptions were often of a monolith swallowing up huge dollops of tax payer’s money to conduct design review, in fact the organisation was never much more than 100 strong (tiny by Government quango standards), and only around a fifth of its staff were dedicated to design review where most of the headlines (and periodic controversy) derived.  The remainder focussed on lower profile but typically highly regarded and effective programmes such as its enabling work in local authorities, its research programme, its public spaces and parks work, the Building for Life initiative, or various educational enterprises of the sort now proposed by Farrell.  Furthermore, whilst, at its height, CABE boasted an annual budget of around £11.6 million, increasingly large proportions of this represented annualised project funding to deliver particular programmes of government, rather CABE’s core services, often related to injecting a quality dimension into the then sizable capital expenditure programmes of New Labour, such as Building Schools for the Future.

But CABE found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place courtesy of its relationship with Government.  Thus whilst Government saw CABE as a highly competent delivery organisation and increasingly loaded it up with ‘projects’ to deliver, this left CABE vulnerable to the whims of Ministers, to the annualised public funding round, to perceptions that CABE was getting flabby, and also took its attention and energies away from its own leadership role.  Moreover, whilst gaining considerable authority as, in effect, the Government’s design arm, its 100% reliance on public money for its survival left CABE at least partially gagged and no longer really able to claim true independence.  Indeed on several occasions the organisation had its wrists firmly slapped by Government when the increasingly control-mined Ministers of the later years of New Labour detected that government policy was not always being fully supported by CABE’s programmes

A Place Leadership Council?

So what does all this imply for a possible new organisation to fill the gap left by CABE?  To my mind it implies two critical things:

  • First, The Farrell Review is absolutely correct in highlighting that the key gap left by the demise of a publically funded CABE is one of leadership. Above all CABE became the national voice of place design (in Farrell’s terms): a meeting place for people and ideas, a coordinating hand, a watchdog and a guide.  And whilst CABE sometimes felt a little heavy-handed and even (some argue) arrogant as a result, and rarely pleased everyone, its leadership role represents a gap that has yet to be filled.
  • Second, and here I depart from the conclusions of The Farrell Review. Our research suggests that any future organisation should not be an arm of, or agency for, Government, and neither should it be beholden to the narrow interests and waxing and waning attention to ‘place’ of the Industry’s professional bodies[4].  Instead, in the name of society and the public interest it should be empowered directly by Parliament to be a truly independent critical friend to government, local government, the professions and the whole development sector.  So whilst Government PLACE advisors, Ministers and civil servants should engage with and be engaged by any such body, they should not control, fund or in any way unduly direct its activities.

So what might such an organisation look like?  We can consider it against the six critical dimensions: purpose, approach, tools, authority, governance, and funding.

Purpose – First, any new organisation entering this space should have a clear and over-riding public interest objective, something like: ‘to promote, support and protect the quality and experience of place in the public built environment’.  Such an objective should be set within a firm conviction that local built environments are shaped by complex interacting processes of design, development, use and management as well as by multiple professional responsibilities, but that through better skills and knowledge and intelligent coordinated intervention these can often be better directed so as to optimise outcomes for society.

Approach – In pursuing such a purpose, the intention should be to fill the current leadership gap by acting as a new hub for knowledge and innovation, and for coordination and proactive engagement with all key parties active in shaping the built environment.  This, however, should be combined with a more disruptive and challenging attitude than has been possible in the past, a role focussed on cajoling, supporting and encouraging others to deliver, rather than the new organisation delivering services itself.  This fits well within the context of a smaller more responsive state, with the Council delivering services itself only when no obvious parties already exist to deliver on its behalf.

Tools – In a context where a ready market now exists and is delivering many core design governance services, most notably design review, but also some aspects of enabling, certification (e.g. BfL 2012), education, and, alongside voluntary initiative, the preparation of good practice guidance, it is certainly no longer necessary to deliver all such services from the centre.  Nevertheless, with a focus on the leadership gap, a number of existing and new tools might combine together to powerfully deliver on the core purpose outlined above:

  • Conducting research, advocacy and campaigning around key place-based issues, not least making the economic, social and environmental case for good design
  • A national centre for excellence, maintaining an on-line Design Portal, of practice guidance, case studies, design services (e.g. design review organisations), and other information; and providing a central point for on-going debate and exchange, including for the National Design Network
  • Supporting a programme of design enabling through grant-making to suitably qualified organisations such as the Design Council or Locality to conduct this service. This would focus on identified need in particular localities, or in relation to particular identified design problems, such as urban extensions or high streets
  • The power to direct schemes to be design reviewed on the basis of representations (although explicitly not to conduct design review services itself)
  • Statutory ‘open source’ consultee for design projects of exceptional national significance, either because of their prominence as projects or because of their role representing a particular set of design concerns. Such a power would enable the new Council to select a small number of very significant planning applications each year on which an open call for views would be posted with responses coordinated and communicated into a coherent publically available design critique for consideration by the determining authority.
  • The power to hold Public Design Inquiries, and to call key players, including Government departments, representatives from key industry sectors, local government, and the professions, in order to hold them to account over key design issues
  • An annual State of Place report, constituting a rolling audit of design and place quality in different regions and / or markets
  • Commissioning, coordinating or endorsing nationally important competitions, policy, guidance, standards and awards

Authority – To be truly independent necessitates freedom from Government, sectional interests of all types, and from the market (the latter in the sense of having to earn its keep, see below).  The first and second of these issues might best be accomplished under a Royal Charter similar to that granted to the BBC, the Bank of England or to our universities, giving the new Council independence and the sorts of powers and responsibilities discussed above.  The legislation establishing such a Royal Charter might also enshrine a duty on all tiers of Government to have regard to the formal reports and recommendations of the Council when establishing local and national place policy.

Governance – With the real powers and independence enshrined in such a charter, the new organisation could avoid the fate of being marginalised, treated like a political football, directed to deliver narrow Government policy objectives, and, worst of all, of becoming a mere talking shop.  Instead, as Farrell suggests, its memberships could be constituted from its key constituent interests.  But, as well as the PLACES professions (the ‘S’ standing for surveying) and government representatives (the PLACE advisors whose role it should be to connect back into Government); this should also include representation from local government, key development industry organisations such as the Home Builders Federation, from neutral parties such as the media, academia, and amenity societies, and from civil society at large.  Representatives would serve on the central Council itself, but the energies of many more, largely volunteers (as tried and tested by CABE), could be harnessed into a range of agile task and deliver working groups hosted across dual London and northern headquarters.

Funding – Finally, to address the question of funding in a manner that retains independence from Government, a surcharge of 1% on top of all planning application fees could be collected annually from local authorities in England.  On current income this would raise around £2-2.5 million or £6 on the average planning application.  Such an income stream would be predictable, not reliant on the whims of Government or on annualised budgeting, easy to collect, and, would rise up and down with the market (more development activity more income and vice-a-versa) and inflation.  It could deliver a reliable core income that might be bolstered by the power to raise further funding from government or industry for specific project-based purposes as defined by the Council, although only up to a maximum of 100% of core income.  Such a cap would keep the organisation relatively small and nimble and focussed on its core purpose without distraction.

Place Council for England (PlaCE)?

And finally, what about the name?  Whilst Place Leadership Council admirably says what it does on the tin, it could also lead to confusion with the newly established Place-making Leadership Council set up by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).  Although this may not seem a major concern (PPS is after all based in New York), our research also confirmed that CABE’s reach was international, and significant parts of the World still look to the former publically funded organisation as a model to follow.  With this in mind, and having regard to a separate argument in The Farrell Review about the need to project UK expertise in the built environment globally, it may be constructive to adopt a less similar name, and one that, like the equivalents in Scotland and Wales, references its home territory.  How about the Place Council for England – PlaCE for short!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


May 2014

[1] The Conservative Party (2010) Open Source Planning Green Paper, http://www.conservatives.com/~/media/Files/Green%20Papers/planning-green-paper.ashx: 10

[2] Department for Communities and Local Government (2012) National Planning Policy Framework, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6077/2116950.pdf: para 62

[3] See: https://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/planning/research/governance-urban-design/mc-evaluating-cabe

[4] The experience of the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) reported in the last column in this series offers a salutary tale here.