Advice: Effective design review

Design review panels can be valuable in supplementing a local authority's urban design skills and helping to integrate large schemes, finds Ben Kochan.

Design review works best when the scheme is at concept stage (PIC James Whitaker)
Design review works best when the scheme is at concept stage (PIC James Whitaker)

Panels of built environmental professionals that advise local authorities and developers on schemes under the design review process can supplement in-house skills and raise the quality of proposals, says Chris Lamb, director of Design South East, one of eight not-for-profit organisations providing design advice across England.

Many local authorities lack the skills to assess the design of schemes, he adds, but design review panels provide support in a range of professional disciplines, including urban design, transport planning, architecture, landscape architecture and civil engineering. Advice from a design review panel can challenge assumptions made by councils and developers about a scheme, says planner and architect Peter Studdert, who is co-chair of the South East design review panel. "Panels can also give council officers and members confidence to require improvements," he says.

Here is advice from design review practitioners on getting the best out of the process.

Refer schemes to panels early

Design review panels work best when they first consider schemes at pre-application stage, says Clare Devine, director of Design Council CABE. She says, "At that stage, nothing is fixed, and we can look at how they [schemes] work in their context, the connections with the surrounding neighbourhood and the availability of local services". Lamb points to the Horsted Park housing scheme in Chatham, Kent, where the South East design review panel was concerned that the original proposal didn’t relate effectively with its surroundings. "We worked with the housebuilder to tailor the design to the context and the result is an award winning scheme," she says. 

Studdert says the South East design review panel has been increasingly concerned about the height and density of schemes coming forward. "We have been working with local authorities and developers to bring down the scale of development, which is best done before the detail has been considered," he says.

Many panels offer support in a number of forms, including workshops with three or four panel members, alongside council and developer representatives, says urban designer Mark Pearson, head of Design Action, Devon and Cornwall. These workshops tend to be less formal and are particularly effective when a scheme is in its early stages, he says.

Work in partnership with the panel

Authorities can benefit from developing a partnership with the panel, says Pearson, as in the process trust can be built up between the panel, council officers and members, and the applicants.

He says that it is not unusual for schemes to go before a design review panel three times. "As a scheme develops, the panel will see how its advice is being followed and review how the detail is being designed," he adds. Jon Rowland, director of urban design consultancy Jon Rowland Urban Design, who chairs Design Council CABE’s design review panel, points out that in Oxford the process involves three sessions. "It starts by considering the scheme’s conceptual framework, while the second session looks at possible development options and the final session reviews the outline application, before it is submitted," he says.

Use review to integrate several architects and schemes

Design Council CABE’s Devine says that panels work particularly well when considering large schemes that involve several architects. She highlights the contribution made to plans for the redevelopment of the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford. "The panel could help the various architects see the wider picture across the scheme and the city centre as a whole," she says.

Paying for the process

Design review can cost up to £4,000 per scheme, depending on the level of input required from panel members, says Lamb, and developers generally cannot be required to pay this fee. "Local authorities have to persuade the applicants of the value from design review," he says. However, some local authorities, like Oxford, include it as an integral part of the planning performance agreement for schemes of more than 50 homes, or those that are in sensitive locations, says Rowland.

This article was amended on 9 March 2016 to correct Mark Pearson's job title as mentioned in his feedback comment below.

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