You may have seen local press coverage in the summer that Waltham Forest Council has set up a design review panel (DRP). Many other boroughs already have similar panels, made up of independent architects and other designers working in the built environment, who provide an aid to the local authority planning department in the assessment of proposed developments for design quality.
That there was no such panel assessing planning applications in the borough has been something that we discussed as a group from the moment we established AE17, and had many discussions with councillors about. Members of AE17 have direct experience of design review panels, on both sides of the table, and know how useful they can be.
So we feel that this is a very positive move on the part of the council; it should be of great benefit to planning officers and the planning committee, and result in better considered buildings and public spaces across the borough.
You might note that there is no information about the constitution of the panel on the council’s website, so here follows a brief synopsis of what we have been told, and some issues that we have raised.
About the Panel
We asked officers about the organisation of the panel, which is to be run by CABE (part of the Design Council) on behalf of Waltham Forest. Each panel will be formed from a pool of 20 members with expertise covering housing, urban design, architecture, public space, infrastructure and planning/design policy. The Panel will be chaired by two architects with a wealth of experience.
We have been told that use of the review process will not be restricted to significant schemes but could also be applied to smaller proposals on key sites or in sensitive locations where it is felt could benefit from review; three types of review have been established with this in mind. The reviews are developer-funded with fees set depending on the scale/nature of the proposal.
Generally the reviews will take place at “advanced pre-application stage” or at a time when proposals are sufficiently developed to allow the Panel to make a meaningful assessment of the scheme.
Whilst the Panel’s advice is not statutory, it will carry some weight in the determination of proposals if and when they get to Planning Committee. The Panel’s views will also assist officers in highlighting key design issues throughout the negotiation process, thereby hopefully strengthening schemes and providing a higher quality of development.
Some thoughts from AE17
We have raised a few questions with the council, as we do have some concerns. It is our experience in boroughs across london that the effectiveness of a DRP rests significantly on its implementation and integration into the planning process.
Currently there doesn’t appear to be any detail available of how the panel will operate and we weren’t aware of any consultation during the setting up period. Having taken this positive step we are mainly now concerned that the Council makes best use of the panel to deliver a much higher standard of design in the borough.
What are the terms of reference for the panel and can they be published in a simple, legible format for all residents to read and understand?
You may note from our previous letters responding to planning applications that we have observed an unevenness in the treatment of design as well as policy between different sizes and types of application. Consistency is key to the credibility of any process and we wish to know how this will be ensured.
It is important that the planning process is clear for the general public, and how the DRP sits within this. Other boroughs include accessible information on their websites; a recently formed LB Camden DRP for example. (Also see Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Merton, Newham, Wandsworth, Southwark, Tower Hamlets.)
We think this level of transparency and clarity is critical to the success of a design review panel and would be keen to know if Waltham Forest intend to follow suit.
What were the criteria for selection of the panel?
It is unclear whether local knowledge was specifically included or excluded in the criteria. In the recent establishing of the LB Camden DRP (of which we have experience), for example, local knowledge was considered a key criterion and locally active architects were recruited to join the panel. Independence may be considered more important than local knowledge but we think it’s important that the process for composing the panel be made clear.
How will schemes be selected for the panel to review?
The selection of projects for review should not be limited to those large in scale, but also widened to include schemes of exceptional /unconventional quality. We have noted a variety of poorly designed small developments recently that could benefit from design review, and a growing number of these has a significant effect on the general perception of the environment. (We welcome the Council’s intention to provide levels of panel for different sizes of development and hope small developers and applicants can be encouraged to make use of the panel for their benefit as well as the council’s)
Has the planning committee been involved in the selection of the panel and is terms of reference?
We note that the Council has made use of CABE design review panels in the past but it is not clear to us that their support has always been necessary to a planning application being recommended for approval. It is understood that design is not the only consideration, but the view of the panel must be clear to the committee and it’s recommendations given due weight in the decision making process.
Again our experience in other boroughs varies. The most progressive and effective require at least key schemes to continue to have panel meetings until they are happy with the proposals, before any consideration by the planning committee. Although the role of the DRP is advisory, the planning committee then needs to be knowledgable of, and equipped to understand its findings and recommendations.
Although we recognise that panels usually have to be confidential due to commercial sensitivity, where possible and where there is significant public interest maybe a DRP could be held in public so as to garner public and community support and provide transparency within the borough.