The Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment, otherwise known as Cabe, is one of the quangos that is in the sights of the budget-busters at the coalition government. According to reports in the building press it faces a 'radical shake-up' which could involve a merger with English Heritage or something similar.
Anyone not involved in planning, development or architecture probably has no idea what Cabe does, and even those who are might find themselves a little vague on the subject. In fact 'the government's advisor on architecture, urban design and public space' publishes design guides and provides advice for people involved in the planning process from many different backgrounds. Its aims are on the whole benevolent - seeking to improve open spaces in social housing areas, for example, and offering guidance and advice to help raise the quality of large-scale developments in urban areas. It was set up to replace the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1999 and is tasked with providing impartial reviews of major developments, among other things.
The results of design reviews of schemes that are submitted for planning permission are published on Cabe's website - they are fascinating to review, but do lend some credence to the belief that however well-meaning the intentions of the organisation, ultimately it's still a toothless dinosaur. The more community-spirited developers will take note of the conclusions of the review panel, while the ones who don't give a damn will take no notice. Guidelines are only guidelines when push comes to shove, and it's down to the parties involved to request the design review. No point inviting criticism if you don't intend to respond to it.
Here's the comments on a few local schemes - some of which were amended and resubmitted as a result of the design review, some of which stand now as epic fails.
The Old Seager Distillery which I wrote about some months ago, and which is now much taller than in the photographs on the post.
Despite alterations to the original scheme, Cabe was unable to support the application for the 27-storey tower project. What they thought about the revised 26-storey project is not recorded - presumably the previous reviews were so damning that the developers instead decided to trust to Lewisham's planning department, who agreed to the scheme.
More recently the panel has reviewed the revised proposals for the contentious Greenwich Market redevelopment. Not a lot has changed since the original review, and despite welcoming the general aspirations of the redevelopment, Cabe 'still has some concerns about the layout of the market, the scale of the hotel and the detailing of the glazed roof'.
Reassuringly, the Dame finds some of her initial comments about the proposed Wharves redevelopment on Oxestalls Road being echoed in Cabe's review. It seems the application has been revised somewhat since I last commented on it - although sadly not to include a cycle and pedestrian route under Evelyn Street.
Further south in the borough, the design review panel is not particularly impressed by the Loampit Vale proposals - the famous housing development intended to incorporate the swimming pool that will replace Ladywell Pool. "We welcome the changes to the scheme since we last reviewed it," Cabe said,"but we think that our concerns about the typological strategies and the relationships between the different building blocks are not fully resolved." The architects also comment specifically on the viability of including a swimming pool in a residential block.
But to see a demonstration of just how pointless these reviews can be, look no further than the design review of my favourite scheme, Creekside Village. To paraphrase: 'we generally support the idea, but we asked a lot of questions before, none of which have been properly answered. The success of the scheme will depend on the suitability of the materials that are used, the detailed design of the facades and of the landscaping. But we're not going to comment further, we trust the council's planning department and the scheme architects to do the right thing, and we have pointed out our publication that gives some more guidelines on the subject. Amen.' *sound of hands being squirted with anti-bacterial gel*