54. Housing design: Learning from the CABE experiment

Taking the medicine

The Government is on a mission to deliver more homes and in their recent White Paper, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, they conflate this with achieving better design. This is an association that periodically occurs when Governments realise that the products of the volume housebuilders are pretty universally derided and that concerns over their impact underpin much local opposition to housebuilding.

It follows that in order to get communities on the side of delivering more new homes we need to up our game in design terms. This requires houses and residential environments that feel like they relate to and make a coherent contribution to place, rather than schemes imposed on places with little or no regard to outcomes. Rather than seeing good design as an intrinsic good with far reaching benefits for society, the economy and the environment, this is a view that sees better design as a means to sweeten the pill enough to get the patient to take the medicine.

The Quality in Town & Country initiative of John Gummer from 1994 onwards came on the back of new housing projections that (at the time) shocked the then Government into action. The creation and subsequent growth of CABE five years later had very similar origins. Six years after that organisation’s demise, what lessons can we learn from the experience that might inform the latest attempt to grapple with the thorny question of the design of mass housing?

Design Governance: The CABE Experiment

With colleagues here at The Bartlett, I recently completed a major study examining the eleven years of publically funded CABE in which we evaluated the work, history, and impact of the organisation, with a particular focus on the ‘tools’ it used to promote design across England. Our research is published in the book Design Governance: The CABE Experiment.


As an organisation, CABE was never well understood, and 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 tiny by Government quango standards, and only around a fifth of its staff were dedicated to design review. The rest of the staff worked on lower profile but typically highly regarded and effective activities such as: enabling within local authorities; its research projects; the work of its public spaces and parks arm (CABE Space); production of its very well used guidance and website; and various educational enterprises such as its summer schools.

These, and design review, are what we call in the book ‘informal tools’ of design governance, as they were never defined in statute and CABE could not direct anyone to follow their advice. We might equally call them tools without teeth. Using them, CABE was very effective at building a much stronger culture of design across the country than had hitherto been the case, or which exists today. After much effort they even reached some, although not all, of the volume housebuilders. Why was this?

Tools without teeth

A critical factor was that the sorts of informal tools at CABE’s disposal were particularly adaptable and not subject to the stifling rigidity of regulation. Thus when confronted with the ‘wicked’ problem of what to do about the poor state of volume built housing, the tools lent themselves to use in combination so that particular challenging problems could be confronted from different angles.

In the case of housing CABE conducted its national housing audits which were then used to embarrass the housebuilders through a campaign that publicised how poor, on average, the products of the housebuilders were. CABE then promoted better quality principles through publishing case studies and guidance focussed on raising aspirations. They put in place training for local authority staff around the country to help them deal with the volume housebuilders, and worked with Government to strengthen national policy, including on highways design in residential areas. CABE placed their enablers directly within local planning authorities around the country to assist in the preparation of policy frameworks or to respond to particular large-scale applications, and they worked as part of the Building for Life consortium to establish nationally acceptable standards and an awards system for the best housing designs. Finally, they conduced hundreds of design reviews on residential-led masterplans around the country, many of which were either abandoned or substantially improved as a result of these reviews.

Since CABE’s demise we have seen a large scale withdrawal of government, at national and local levels from engaging in design, and a fragmentation of the non-governmental design governance services that remain. We have also seen a retrenchment of housebuilders, highways authorities, and planning authorities across the country back to the old ways of doing things. Respectively these are based on standard (and inappropriate) housing types, rigid and over-engineered highways standards, and planning authorities without the time, skills or confidence to challenge the housebuilders.

This scheme, currently on sit in Truro is dominated by tarmac, blank walls, parking, cheap materials, an absence of greenery and incongruous architectural elements

Tools with bite

The CABE experiment represented a particular moment in time, and it is unlikely that we will be returning there anytime soon. But learning the lessons from the CABE era, what should the Government do now?

  • First, show leadership and don’t leave it all to our hard pressed local authorities. This must surely involve promoting the principles in Manual for Streets, the government’s own guidance on the design of people-centred residential streets. This should be accompanied by Minsters speaking out when residential design is poor and celebrating it when it is not, starting by publicising a few appeal decisions where residential schemes were rejected on design grounds.
  • Second, emphasise proactivity in local authorities through moving away from the reliance on generic policies in local plans to the preparation of simple non-statutory site-specific frameworks and design codes for housing sites that focus on setting out the essential urbanistic parameters of place. These tools, such as the ‘coordinating codes’ on a single sheet of A3 paper that I have written about previously, are quick and cheap to prepare, allow communities to engage early with sites, give certainly to all involved, and still allow space for a creative design process.
  • Third, recognise the value of design review as unashamedly a constructive peer-based checking and refinement mechanism in a manner akin to the architectural crit. Design review should be made compulsory in the forthcoming revised NPPF for all major housing schemes.

These are all tools without teeth, yet used well they have bite. With little cost and no new legislation we can once again begin to drive design quality up the national agenda.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

March 2017