As part of its austerity drive, the UK government has decided to cut funding to a wide range of ‘quangos'. These are non-governmental bodies which are funded by Government and are intended to provide a useful service better delivered at arm's-length than directly by the government itself. One such quango is CABE - the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment - the UK's design watchdog.
CABE has published many guides to good design and conducted thousands of design reviews since its formation in 1999, when it succeeded the Royal Fine Art Commission. CABE is credited with moderating and informing design decisions on a wide range of schemes across the country, offering planning and design advice to public and private sector bodies and promoting better use of public and green space.
CABE is to lose its funding as a result of the government's 'comprehensive spending review' (a UK public spending review), which throws its existence into question - even though it passed the government's ‘public bodies review' which assessed which quangos should be kept or abolished.
There is little doubt that, among the UK design & development community, there is a considerable desire to maintain the role played by CABE in raising the bar on built environment design. Making sure that good design is delivered on important sites is something that all reputable developers realise makes their investments more worthwhile.
Even though the government has decided to remove funding, CABE need not die; it just cannot continue to be funded as a quango. If CABE can find ways to continue all or some of its work, as a not-for-profit body, then it is, or should be, free to do so.
As Paul Finch, chair of CABE says, there is one simple act the government could take to help this come about: "All they need to do is declassify CABE. This would cost nothing, would free us from many of the expensive and arduous aspects of being a quango, but preserve our statutory role.
"We could then link up with other organisations to continue to provide the government with advice and help to bring about its localism and planning reform agendas."
Preserving the statutory role is important. It means the organisation would have a duty to provide advice on significant schemes, and that promoters and designers of those schemes would have a duty to consider the opinions given. This makes the difference between a lobby group and a design watchdog with real teeth.
CABE's struggle in the UK is important around the world. There are few such organisations elsewhere and CABE has provided guidance which has been adopted in many countries. Delegations from Australia, Finland, Libya and numerous other countries have all visited CABE to learn more about its work in the last year.
We need more such work, not less, and should CABE become a casualty of austerity or there be a failure to give it a fresh lease of life in a new form, the design world will be a poorer place.Ross Sturley