72. A design quality unit for England – marmite to manna

Back in February, in a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, a coalition of organisations called for the setting up of a new Design Quality Unit for England.  The call follows the report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and the publication of A Housing Design Audit for England.  Collectively, the Academy of Urbanism, Civic Voice, CPRE, Design Council, Place Alliance, Trees & Design Action Group and Urban Design Group argued:

  1. We have been systematically failing to deliver good quality urban design across England for decades, particularly new residential environments
  2. There is a need for systemic change in the way we design and deliver the built environment, and – building on recent initiatives – a once in a generation opportunity for the Government to show real leadership and ambition in this regard
  3. To help drive the culture change that we need will require focus, capacity, leadership and resourcing and this should start by setting up a dedicated new Design Quality Unit for England.
Screenshot 2020-05-16 at 13.35.02
Living with Beauty and A Housing Design Audit for England demonstrate emphatically that we need a new way of doing things

The period since our letter has seen the country locked-down as part of the global effort to slow the spread of Coronavirus.  To me the period has revealed – perhaps like never before – the importance of our built environment in helping to support our everyday and fundamental well-being.  As I argued in my last blog, those who, through no fault of their own, are living in sub-standard homes, in isolated, single-use and un-walkable neighbourhoods will have had it harder than anyone.  Whilst these are exceptional times, a new pamphlet from the same consortium argues that we need to be thinking about the future, and with that in mind it is Time to get serious about design.

Screenshot 2020-05-16 at 12.33.02 copy
Time to get serious about design quality

The pamphlet asks and starts to answer the question, what form would such a unit take?

The elephant in the room

Whenever such a thing is mooted, the elephant in the room is CABE.  The Commission for Architecture and Built Environment existed for just over a decade and, as exhaustive research at UCL[1] has shown, was singularly successful in helping to raise design quality up the agenda nationally and locally.  It did this without formal powers, relying instead on its ability to persuade, cajole and encourage others that design was important and worthy of our time and investment.

At the time of its demise – an almost accidental casualty of the post-financial crisis cuts in public expenditure – even the DCMS Minister responsible for taking the decision through parliament was apologetic, arguing that the work and the principles that it embodied should continue.  Ministers in DCLG were said to be absolutely incandescent at the decision to close CABE, but were unable to stop it as they were not its sponsoring department.

CABE, of course, was marmite – either loved or loathed.  In attempting to drag the country up from the depths of poor design that its own Housing Audits of the mid-2000s graphically revealed, it made enemies.  Some were industry executives and their apologists (some of whom we continue to hear from, trotting out the same tired old arguments that if they can sell it, that is good enough).  Others were designers and developers who had received a poor review, and didn’t like being told what to do by what they saw as a paternalistic London-centric coterie.

Architectural quality copy
Just because there is a market for poor quality design, does not mean it is acceptable

Yet despite the criticisms, the overwhelming evidence is that CABE was highly influential in helping to drive up design quality.  Whilst other nations have spent the last ten years learning from and improving on approaches pioneered by the organisation, England has again fallen behind.

Turning marmite to manna

Understandably there is likely to be little interest in returning to the past.  CABE was for and of its time, and even if it had survived, it would have evolved and perhaps been unrecognisable today.  The aim should be to address the challenges (1-3 above), whilst avoiding the criticisms, and – in the current climate – not spending too much public money!  To crudely combine popular and biblical references – how can we turn marmite into manna?

I would suggest adopting four principles:

  • First, any new unit should focus on what was refered in the joint letter as the allied missions, to ‘monitor’, ‘challenge’ and ‘inspire’, and ultimately to assist in the local ‘delivery’ of better design, what the new pamphlet describes as: “instigating a programme of focussed support and enabling within local government and other public and private partners”.
  • In other words it should have no formal regulatory or statutory role, but should use the range of soft advocacy, persuasion, enabling and information tools to focus on the national culture of design quality.
  • Second, since the demise of CABE, a viable market has sprung up in the delivery of design review services, complemented by many local panels. Whilst practices are varied and variable (and sometimes in need of improvement), there is little apparent need or desire for a Government funded national design review service.  Omitting design review from its remit would avoid many of the criticisms that led to the loss of support for CABE.
  • Third, any body should by sufficiently independent of Government that it is able to give authoritative and trusted advice – to government, industry and the nation – whilst being confident that its funding will be sustained, even when it needs to be critical
  • Fourth, it should be small and agile at its core, bringing in expertise as required from around the country to deliver its priorities. As pamphlet argues, at all times it should work through partnership and a networked approach across professional, industry, government and civil society stakeholders and help to facilitate and support bottom up initiative as much as top down systemic change: a ‘hub and spokes’ model.

Possible models

Delivering urban quality: Time to get serious explores a number of models for such a unit:

A unit within Government – The Government has already invested in some welcome design capacity within the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, led (under the Chief Planner) by the newly created Head of Built Environment and Head of Architecture.  This small but vital team within Government could be expanded and further empowered to more forcefully pursue the design agenda.  Working within Government, however, such a unit could not also be independent of it, and inevitably would have to work within the constraints of the government machine and the close confines of governmental policy.

An arms-length unit of Government – In essence this was the CABE model (or the Royal Fine Art Commission – RFAC – before that).  A key benefit of this approach would be the potential closeness to Government and the authority that provides, again at the risk that independence is compromised through a complete reliance on national government for its funding (as CABE found).  Of-course quangos of various forms still exist across government, and organisations such as the UK Statistics Authority and the Office for Budget Responsibility have important roles in both monitoring and auditing key sectors and in holding Government to account.  The wider context, however, has been a reduction in quangos in recent years, and a new one may feel just too much like old CABE.

A partnership with Government – Given the fourth principle above (the need to work across national and local government, industry, the range of built environment professions, and to reach out to the community at large) a more innovative and inclusive model might involve a partnership approach.  Under such a model, Government might work with stakeholders to pump prime a new unit on the proviso that financial liability would reduce through time as other public and private sources of funding are developed – alongside Government’s.  Such a model would help to sustain a truly independent and cross-sectoral unit, less subject to the whims of one sector or another (and of Government).  This is the model that organisations such as the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies work under, and a similar arrangement for the built environment shouldn’t be too hard to envisage.  Its authority, of course, would be dependent on its ability to convince Government and others of the rightness of its arguments, and on the ability of quite different organisations to move beyond confrontation and to come together.  Its partnership ethos would extend across the country, with a mode of operation that engaged all regions and drove a country-wide journey to better design.  This would be my favoured model.

A unit outside of Government – A final model might be a cross-sector alliance completely outside of Government.  The challenge with this model is in bringing such a diverse sector together and encouraging it to collaborate in a meaningful manner without the authority (and resources) of Government.  In a much reduced way, the alliance behind A Housing Design Audit for England showed that this is possible (from the Home Builders Federation to the CPRE), but in such a fragmented sector as the built environment, the important role of Government in oiling the wheels of culture change should not be underestimated.  It was the strong commitment that CABE received from Government throughout its short life that explains why it was so much more effective than the RFAC was over its much longer one.

A no-brainer

Each of the models has potential benefits and drawbacks, and whichever was chosen, would not please everyone all the time.  But that is surely the role of such a unit, to challenge and strive for improvement, and not simply to accept substandard outcomes because there is a market for them, or because that is what we have always done.

The value of good urban design across the country is incalculable, the cost, minimal

The cost would be truly minimal.  Assuming a staff of 20-25 for a budget of say £2 million per year, this would represent just 2% of the market value of the average (by size and quality) housing scheme audited for A Housing Design Audit for EnglandSurely a no-brainer if we really care about design quality.

The analogy with manna is stretching it, but if we set it up right and engage all parties in an open and accessible way, then perhaps we can get more people to like marmite more of the time!

Professor Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


May 2020

[1] Carmona M, de Magalhaes C & Natarajan L (2017) Design Governance: The CABE Experiment, London, Routledge

%d bloggers like this: