60. Reviewing design review (in London)

Design review (aka the peer review process for the design of built environment projects) began in London over two hundred years ago with the establishment of the 1802 ‘Committee of Taste” to review the design of “monuments to the heroes of the Napoleonic wars”.  It has come a long way since then, but many of the practices used today still closely resemble those developed by the Royal Fine Arts Commission which was established 1924 as the first national design review service (at least for England and Wales).  In 1999 this morphed (in England) into the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), with design review remaining a core part of its work until its funding was withdrawn in 2011.

Today, for the first time in 90 years, we have seen a complete withdrawal of direct national government involvement in design review and the gradual emergence instead of a market in design review services across England.  This was strongly endorsed in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, and has since received a further strong endorsement in the 2017 draft London Plan; now accompanied by a London Quality Review Charter produced and promoted by the Mayor of London.

Whilst, in the turbulent economic climate of 2011/12, a market in design review services initially struggled to establish itself in London (and elsewhere), recently it has burgeoned.  Today there are approaching 30 formal panels operating across the city, operating at different scales (and more informal ones).  Many are directly funded by a charge levied for the service by local planning authorities.  At the same time there remain very significant gaps in the coverage of design review.

A new landscape for design review

The current flowering of design review and the divergence in provision makes now an important moment to take a step back and explore the new landscape for design review services in London. Supported by The Mayor of London and Urban Design London, during 2017 the Place Alliance conduced the first significant study of design review processes since 2008.

The new study – Reviewing Design Review – examined a range of design review cases in London and produced detailed findings based upon in-depth interviews with applicants, designers, panellists, and panel managers, providing a 360-degree analysis of the diversity of design review practices across the city and of the benefits that flow from high quality provision.

The growth trajectory for design review services in London has been matched with an associated professionalization and localisation of design review and a consequential move away from informal local panels and top-down national ones. The research revealed that generally the practice and experience of design review across London has improved since 2011, although there remain important challenges for panels to address.

Widespread agreement about the benefits of design review

Overwhelmingly those interviewed, from all sides, were positive about the purpose and value of design review, accepting that for a modest cost the process improved design, often fundamentally.  For those managing, commissioning, serving on, or presenting to design review panels, the aspirations for review are clear and unified.  They focus on achieving better design and place-making than would otherwise be achieved without it.  Developers tend to be more circumspect about design review than these groups, but also accepted that the process is a necessary means to raise the standard of design.

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Housing on a sensitive site in the London Borough of Haringey, responded to the panel through the reduction of one pavilion (five to four), the re-orientation of the blocks to allow views through the development, and their modulation in response to the topography

There was widespread agreement about the range of benefits that design review can bring, and that these benefit all parties with a stake in the outcomes from the development process: society, the design team, the applicant (developer) and the planning authority. Indeed the research confirmed that well managed design review delivers:

  • Better designed projects and places
  • Culture change locally through which better design is seen as the norm
  • A more collaborative process
  • More empowered designers
  • A more intelligent design process
  • Greater certainty in the development process
  • A faster formal planning process
  • Endorsement for the promoters of challenging projects
  • Support for internal design capacity within local authorities (where it exists)
  • Help to fill design skills gaps in local authorities
  • Greater confidence amongst public sector decision-makers
  • Learning opportunities for all involved

Collectively these benefits underpin a solid case for investing in the process with interviewees overwhelmingly reporting that the costs associated with design review represented value for money; particularly when leading to a smoother and more streamlined route through the planning process.  Whilst the charges levied for design review varied significantly (on average £3,670 in London), they were never seen as a barrier by applicants, and many developers would be prepared to pay more if it meant that the planning process was expedited.

Reviews form part of a larger process of securing better design

The range of positive impacts from design review are clear and significant, but as an approach to improving design quality it has its limitations and should never be seen as the sole means to achieve design quality.  Even if a number of design reviews are conducted on a project, it can never replace the on-going dialogue that it is possible to have with a permanent design advisor within a planning or highways authority.  In-house design advice and independent design review are most effective when they operate together.

The recommendations of panels are also only as good as the determination of all parties to see them implemented. Ultimately the success of design review is dependent on:

  1. An applicant and design team being willing to engage positively with the process and address the concerns of the panel;
  2. A public sector willing to deny the necessary permissions (or funding) unless and until the concerns of the panel have been addressed;
  3. Failure to attend design review when invited being treated as a material consideration in the planning process; and
  4. A continued focus on delivering design quality by the development team and planning authority even after the necessary regulatory gateways have been passed.

There is no ‘right’ way of managing design review

Turning to how panels are run, the research deliberately examined design review as delivered by the range of design review management models used in London.  The passage of 12 projects through 8 panels were explored in-depth, giving considerable insights into the best management practices.

In London it was revealed that design review panels come in four varieties: internally managed (free or charged) and externally managed (private or not-for-profit).  There was no evidence that any of these four models is intrinsically superior to the others.  All are capable of delivering excellent design review services.

Types of design review panel in London

Whilst qualitative differences between the various providers of professional design review services were hard to detect, there were clear differences between services run on a shoe-string within local authorities, or even on a free (voluntary) basis, and those that were professionally organised (either in-house or externally) and fully costed.  Paid reviews provide consistency and quality of service, which is a great benefit to all parties.

The use of ad hoc design review in Boroughs without dedicated panels of their own was the least successful model.  Such practices lead to a lack of consistency of panel membership and to an associated lack of local contextual knowledge.

Demonstrating independence is important

To be effective at offering impartial design advice, panels need to be independent, with their role and status made clear.  Independence requires that a distance be maintained between applicants and the panel and panel managers at all times.  The research indicated that the absence of demonstrable independence can quickly undermine trust in the process.  As a minimum this should require that, even if a provider of a design review service is paid directly by an applicant, the client for the review remains the public authority.

Panels also need to be more explicit about their conflict of interest provisions, including being clear with applicants (as well as panellists) about how such matters are managed.

A high quality panel with a clear understanding of their role is key

The most important factor to get right in design review is the constitution of the panel.  The research revealed that different panels look for different things when recruiting, typically a combination of:

  1. The professional standing and expertise of individual panel members;
  2. Local knowledge and commitment;
  3. A broad spread of inter-disciplinary expertise across the panel; and
  4. A diversity of panel members reflecting an inclusive recruitment process.

Good design review comes down to the panel members being open-minded and constructive in their criticism.  Panellists with very fixed stylistic views, for example, should be avoided in favour of those with a more open and pluralistic attitude to architectural design.

Well-integrated design review works best

Rather than design review being seen as peripheral, merely a ‘tick-box’ exercise, or the only check on the quality of the project, review works best when its role in relation to the wider processes that shape projects is properly established and well understood.  This should begin with consistent criteria for determining which projects should normally be subject to design review. For example, ‘all major projects and other projects of local or city-wide significance’.

The most effective Borough panels i.e. those whose advice has the greatest impact, are the ones that have managed to get and retain the confidence of both officers and the planning committee.  This requires the design review panel to have:

  1. A good understanding and respect for the local policy context, development challenges and planning process;
  2. A means to dialogue with the planning committee and key officers that goes beyond the reviews themselves; and
  3. A high status when feeding their views into decision-making

It is also important to establish from the start what issues are within or beyond the scope of the design review process. Panels should take a broad view of design that incorporates the critical notion of design as place-making and which extends across spatial scales from very large-scale urban design concerns to the internal arrangements of buildings.

Adopting best practice principles to conduct design review

Each panel operates differently, often with good reason, although some practices continue to play into on-going negative perceptions about the process. These can be avoided by focussing more effort on a number of uniformly important characteristics of successful design review:

  • Consistent panel membership across successive reviews on large schemes (the absence of which can significantly undermine the credibility of the process)
  • Panels that are not larger than they need to be (smaller panels were consistently regarded as more effective than larger ones)
  • Comprehensive briefing of the panel prior to review regarding relevant policy, the site, ownership constraints, and the planning process
  • A site visit conducted prior to the first design review on a project
  • A presentation by the design team that follows clearly enforced time limits to allow adequate time for the subsequent discussion
  • A carefully structured review discussion, following a flexible checklist of topics circulated in advance (to allow applicants to prepare in advance and ensure a comprehensive coverage of subject matter on the day)
  • A transition in topics across successive reviews for large projects, from broad strategic issues to the detail of design, and avoiding revisiting settled issues
  • Careful use of language during reviews, avoiding the use of unduly negative language or unsubstantiated comments that can overshadow constructive engagement
  • Avoiding getting bogged down in ‘non-design’ matters, such as the percentage of affordable housing
  • Panel members with a sensibility to the viability constraints affecting schemes
  • Avoidance of any attempt to negotiate on behalf of the local authority
  • Discouraging panel members from attempting to design projects themselves or recommending alternative designers.

An optimum journey through design review for large projects would typically involve three visits to the panel: at inception to discuss the concept, after consultation to discuss the design development, and again at detailed design.  Smaller projects requiring a one-off design review should be seen at a mid-way stage when the design is well resolved but it is not too late to make serious changes if required.

Narrow Way 3 copy
The public realm review of Narrow Way in the London Borough of Hackney succeeded in bringing calmness and simplicity to a scheme that threatened to be over-complex and un-contextual

Producing clear reports leading to a demonstrable response

Many panels adopt the standard that the report should be provided within ten working days of the review.  The research confirmed that it is important that reports are concise and written in plain English. Clear recommendations should proceed in a hierarchy from fundamental concerns to the ‘nice to haves’.

Ultimately design teams should demonstrate how they have made a considered and intelligent response to the recommendations of panels.  For example, including a section on this in the Design and Access Statement ensures this is made publicly and formally as part of the planning process. For their part, when case officers, planning committees and other regulators choose to depart from an explicit recommendation of a design review panel, a careful justification should be incorporated in the officer’s report and/or decision letter in order to justify the response.

The need to be transparent and accessible

Despite the benefits, negative perceptions about design review remain widespread.  Panels argue that they continue to battle against what they see as outmoded associations with theold (pre-2011) design review model.  The fragmentation and commercialisation of design review services after 2011 has meant that the sharing of good practice has often been absent, and this can mean that poor practices persist.  A new more open learning culture is clearly needed.

The principles of design review encompassed in Design Review, Principles and Practice state that design review should be: independent, expert, multidisciplinary, accountable, transparent, proportionate, timely, advisory, objective and accessible. These are reinforced in the Mayor’s London Quality Review Charter.

The research showed, however, that the majority of panels are not ‘transparent’ or ‘accessible’. Whilst there were often very good reasons for being more closed in style, it is clear that there was a cost to this in the reputation of panels and to the process at large.  Given that some panel hearings are already far more open than others, without obvious damage to their processes, levels of engagement or reputation, a greater degree of transparency should be the norm.

If design review is to be demonstrably seen to be conducted in the public interest, then the closed nature of many panels needs to be reversed.

The need for a learning culture

There is also a need to be less secretive and better at sharing the experiences and practices of design review between panels and across the sector.  A learning culture should begin by establishing robust mechanisms for securing feedback on how local design review practices are operating. Currently this is a neglected aspect of most design review services.  It might include:

  1. Feedback from service users to those managing design review on their experience;
  2. Feedback to the panel members on how their recommendations are being used and on the effectiveness of the service; and
  3. Feedback to the public about design review services, about the role of design review and its impact.

Such a learning culture will benefit everyone involved in design review. Reviewing Design Review (it is hoped) represents a step in that direction.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


July 2018