Appoint design ‘tsar’, Lords tell government

Friday 11 March 2016

Image: White City - Photographer Agnese Sanvito

England needs a chief built environment adviser or ‘tsar’ working independently within government to spearhead a revolution in the way in which it treats design quality.

That was one of the main recommendations of a wide-ranging report put together by an influential cross-party House of Lords Select Committee which many hope will have the ‘clout’ to make it further into reality than the Farrell review or Bishop review before it.

The ‘Building better places’ report, launched last week at the NLA, looks at housing, planning and quality of place in England and was all the more powerful for the fact that its cross-party members were from non-specialist backgrounds, said special adviser to the committee Matthew Carmona. The committee ‘churned through’ a lot of evidence from 187 written submissions and 53 witnesses, against the background of the Farrell review 12 months earlier. ‘But of more relevance is the long-term case this report makes for seeing the built environment in a positive way, and that national policies should have a positive vision for the future of the built environment’, said Carmona. ‘That in a sense is quite different from the way we often seem to do things in this country.’ We tend to ‘lurch from one crisis to the next’, he added, and have not adequately faced the crises of the past, let alone the housing one that currently grips the country. ‘We fiddle while Rome burns and in particular we endlessly fiddle with our regulatory processes in the absence of any really clear vision of what sort of places and what type of communities we we wish as a society to see, and what proactive steps we need to take to get there.’

The chief built environment advisor recommendation is part of the report’s place-centred approach, with the person acting independently within government in the manner of the chief scientific advisor. He or she would coordinate relevant policy across different central government departments, act as a champion for higher standards within government, promote good practice outside of it and produce an annual report for parliament providing high level monitoring of quality and delivery within the built environment.

The committee’s other conclusions included a recommendation to adopt high level policy on its aspirations for place as an early priority for the adviser; it should lead by example in its own construction projects, and make design review ‘mandatory’ for all major planning applications. Government should also reverse recent decisions to remove zero carbon homes policy and the decision to remove the code for sustainable homes, instead setting out and implementing a ‘viable trajectory towards energy efficiency and carbon reduction in new homes, encourage more retrofitting, and reconsider its proposal to include starter homes in the definition of affordable housing. Carmona said the committee also recommended accepting the GLA proposal – subject to appropriate safeguards – to allow the charging of the equivalent of council tax rates when developments have not commenced after a specified period of time after planning permission.

Farrells partner Max Farrell said the report fits well with the Farrell review, commending the fact that a formal response from government is required. ‘We didn’t get a response other than “thanks very much”, which we were disappointed by’, said Farrell. But the idea of a built environment advisor was also a good one, especially if it can improve the small amount of joined up thinking there is within government.

Urban Design London’s Esther Kurland said it was good to see that the committee said you can’t divorce principle from detail in planning, especially since government has published a report on offering permission in principle on some brownfield sites in a bid to speed delivery. This could be at the expense of quality, she argued.

And finally Peter Bishop, professor of Urban Design at the Bartlett said it was a very good report, all the more so for coming from within government, where there are clear structural issues that need to be addressed. ‘If improving the quality of the built environment was easy we wouldn’t be in such a lamentable state as we are at the moment’, he said. Bishop supported the idea of an organisation that fills the void left by CABE, the ‘accidental’ demise of which (three departments each felt the other would take it on) has been keenly felt.

‘What is really good is the beginnings of an understanding that it is not just about having a design tsar – but a design tsar can only work if backed up by a unit that can support them. And that design star is there to work deep within government to change the way government works.’ The adviser role would have minimal cost but would have very great impact, he added. ‘If nothing else, that is a recommendation I hope government will get behind and implement.’

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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