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Thursday24 July 2014

Cabe can blame no one else for its imminent demise

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The organisation’s recent actions demonstrate how it has lost sight of its values

Amanda Baillieu

Amanda Baillieu — editor in chief

Is Cabe finished? The answer is almost certainly yes and the fault is not the government’s, which will cut off its money next spring. Neither is it the Design Council’s, which had Cabe forced on it. Cabe is to blame for its own demise because in the end it lost sight of its values.

Some will say these went a long time ago when it had to turn itself into a profitable business by flogging design review services to cash-strapped local authorities. But the trick it needed to pull off was to keep those values going because these are what underpin any successful business.

They govern what it sees as important, what it does when faced with a problem and what its purpose is.

In Cabe’s case it was a body that stood for the improvement of the built environment. It doesn’t matter that towards the end its motivation was simply to take on more in order to grow. We knew what it stood for.

But, as a former director says this week, it has lost sight of that. Instead of seeing independence from government as an opportunity to campaign on issues that need open debate, it became inward looking and almost silent.

It also became dysfunctional, losing three senior staff in 12 months. The latest is its director, Nahid Majid, who was fired after returning from holiday. But it’s to her credit that she refused to be paid off in return for her silence.

Whatever her shortcomings as a director — and why did it take Cabe 10 months to become aware of them? — her treatment looks shoddy. Meanwhile, she is not being replaced, leaving Cabe in the hands of someone with no built environment experience at all.

All organisations sometimes need to make decisions based on short-term gain. But few successful ones take risks with people’s jobs and livelihoods unless they face annihilation.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • zecks_marquise

    Maybe I just got a raw deal but from my experience, neither clients nor local authorities paid any attention to CABE. What a waste of money.

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  • CABE was a review body and to have any meaning or value it had to have the authority to be heard and to have its views respected and followed. That authority could only have existed by being accepted by government at all levels and by the professions and the development and construction industries. It was important because there was no other body able to make judgements at a national level and without such an overview everything will be determined by local, parochial and probably financial criteria. That is no way to achieve high standards in the built environment. It is no surprise that there is no national strategy for urban development but it is a disaster which will make itself known quite soon. That there is no-one, no government body, no group, no quango, not even a group within the professions of a stature adequate to challenge policy let alone create policy is a failure of responsibility. OK CABE had no magic wand, was always open to criticism but make it better don't kill it off. It is now accepted that governments are too short sighted to solve the economic crisis and by the same token they are too short sighted to solve the crisis of where and how people should live and work.

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  • CABE was an attempt to replace the gentlemens' institution, the Royal Fine Art Commission, with something more accountable but with the same task: to decree what is/is not beautiful.

    Naturally, it failed. Goodbye and good riddance.

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  • Cabe was not the author of its demise. It was clear from the start that it had no part to play in the Tory agenda to cut investment in homes, infrastructure, schools etc. It may have tried to reinvent itself but without the very minimal financial support that could have kept it going it was bound to disappear. If it goes, there will be no national defender of design in the built environment. This is more than a shame, it is tragic and BD should be arguing the case for its survival. Do we believe that design can be facilitated and delivered by BIM, Localism, the NPPF without design review, enabling and local support for overstretched and understaffed planning authorities? Having left the financial affairs of the country to the market can we do the same for the built environment?

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  • Quote "there will be no national defender of design in the built environment".

    There wasn't one in baroque Rome or renaissance Florence. Both seem to have done quite well without it.

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