Client Guidance Notes

INTRODUCTION

Design Review is an independent and impartial evaluation process in which a Panel of experts on the built environment assess the design of a proposal. The projects that Design Review deals with are usually of public significance, and the process is designed to improve the quality of buildings and places for the benefit of the public.

The Government promotes the use of design review through the National Planning Policy Framework which acknowledges the role of local design review panels in the pursuit of high standards in urban design. 

NPPF Paragraph 129 Local planning authorities should ensure that they have access to, and make appropriate use of, tools and processes for assessing and improving the design of development. These include workshops to engage the local community, design advice and review arrangements, and assessment frameworks such as Building for a Healthy Life. These are of most benefit if used as early as possible in the evolution of schemes and are particularly important for significant projects such as large-scale housing and mixed- use developments. In assessing applications, local planning authorities should have regard to the outcome from these processes, including any recommendations made by design

Design West provides expert guidance on design issues within the statutory process of development management, through the objective expertise provided by Panel members. Its official role in this process is as an independent, non-statutory consultee. 

DESIGN WEST PANEL MEMBERS

Design West has a pool of some 100 members. Panel members are appointed based on their individual suitability, professional qualifications, and experience. Panel members do not represent groups or stakeholder bodies but serve on the Panel as individuals. Panel members are expected to be objective and professional in making design judgements and to abide by the Nolan principles of public life:

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership

Members are drawn from a range of built environment backgrounds to ensure that a relevant pool of expertise is available to deal with all types of application. Professions recruited include architects, urban designers, planners, landscape designers, developers, engineers and others with expertise in transport, sustainability and public art.

Design West manages the preparation and delivery of a design review through its Panel Managers will advise on timetable arrangements. DW membership is reviewed regularly and new members need to be sought from time to time. Generally, members are appointed for a three-year term which can be renewed. Selection of new members is undertaken on the basis of a CV and an open, transparent interview that is based on merit and equal opportunity.

BEST PRACTICE PRINCIPLES

DW follows the best practices of design review set out in Design Review Principles and Practice (CABE 2013)

Good design review is:

  • Independent It is conducted by people who are unconnected with the scheme’s promoters and decision makers, and it ensures that conflicts of interest do not arise
  • Expert It is carried out by suitably trained people who are experienced in design and know how to criticise constructively. Review is usually most respected where it is carried out by professional peers of the project designers, because their standing and expertise will be acknowledged
  • Multidisciplinary It combines the different perspectives of architects, urban designers, urban and rural planners, landscape architects, engineers and other specialist experts to provide a complete, rounded assessment
  • Accountable The Review Panel and its advice must be clearly seen to work for the benefit of the public. This should be ingrained within the panel’s terms of reference
  • Transparent The panel’s remit, membership, governance processes and funding should always be in the public domain
  • Proportionate It is used on projects whose significance, either at local or national level, warrants the investment needed to provide the service
  • Timely It takes place as early as possible in the design process, because this can avoid a great deal of wasted time. It also costs less to make changes at an early stage
  • Advisory A design review panel does not make decisions, but it offers impartial advice for the people who do
  • Objective It appraises schemes according to reasoned, objective criteria rather than the stylistic tastes of individual panel members
  • Accessible Its findings and advice are clearly expressed in terms that design teams, decision makers and clients can all understand and make use of

THE DESIGN REVIEW PROCESS

Design West will establish a timetable of reviews at the beginning of each year. These are agreed with the respective liaison officers from applicable local planning authorities.

Schemes will generally be suggested for review by the local planning authorities. Increasingly, direct approaches are made by developers and their project teams who wish to take advantage of design review as part of an iterative design process.

A Design Review can be convened to meet face to face or online using zoom or teams. Requirements can be discussed with the Design West Managers to agree what is proportionate to the complexity of the scheme.

A booking can be made by submitting the information on this form.

SELECTION OF SCHEMES

All schemes reviewed should be of significance to the locality. Significance is not confined to size, location, or type of project, they should at least have demonstrable local importance. 

Selection of schemes will consider:

  • the public impact of the development (e.g., major landmark buildings or large groups of buildings or public cityscape schemes)
  • the importance of the site (historic, cultural, ecological importance; strategic sites)
  • the innovative aspects of the project (new aspects of scale, materials, context, form, or materials) 
  • whether the nature of the scheme exemplifies a particular development problem.

Design West may well consider an important project several times through its design and development process.

PANEL SELECTION

The Manager and appointed Chair will select a Panel according to the skills and expertise that are needed for a particular review. The Manager will then check availabilities and secure replacements as necessary. Panels normally comprise a chair and two to four members. Panellists should notify the Panel Chair of any conflicts of interest that might arise if they review a particular scheme. A conflict of interest will disqualify the member from that review.

THE MEETING AGENDA

In consultation with the appointed Chair, the Manager will prepare the meeting agenda and its timings and notify the presenters and panellists and local authority in advance of the actual Panel meeting. 

All illustrative material and documentation for the review will be submitted electronically by the developer’s agent in agreement with the Panel Manager at least a week before the date of the review. Panelists and Chairs are required to fully brief themselves on the presentation materials and are expected to visit the site [if there is no organised site visit]. 

CONDUCT OF MEETINGS

Design West supports the principles of design review, see also the Design West Panel Terms of Reference whereby:

‘a panel should not forget that it is there to advise not to decide, design or instruct. It should encourage others to act on its advice by being positive about the good aspects of the scheme as well as critical of its flaws. Questioning the client on the scheme is a perfectly legitimate role for a panel—if the panel thinks that the client has asked the architect to put too much accommodation on the site it should say so….

Fundamental criticism is sometimes necessary even though it will occasionally be unwelcomed to those who have committed time, effort and money to a project . . . and there is considerable benefit in having everyone hear the discussion. Hearing the reasoning behind the Panel’s views will help all parties understand the major issues with the scheme. For design reviews to be effective, panel members must have the confidence to voice criticism in front of the scheme’s presenters.’ (CABE, Principles of Design Review)

Each review begins with the Chair welcoming the design/development team to the meeting and explaining the procedures and timing of the meeting and the subsequent issuing of the Panel’s report. The Chair will ask the Panelists and the local authority to introduce themselves and indicate their professional background. The Chair will note any minor conflicts of interest that Panellists may have and seek the presenting team’s assent to them remaining as part of the review team (the Panel Chair will already have excluded any panelist with a major conflict of interest). Then the development/design team will introduce themselves. The planning case officer and/or other specialist such as Highways, landscape, Conservation they will introduce themselves at this point. 

The Development Management case officer and/or other specialist officer will be asked to comment and to outline any key issues and questions that are of concern. If other bodies such as Historic England are represented, its representative will also be asked to comment at this point. 

The client developer may wish to briefly introduce the scheme under consideration and then the principal designer will explain the scheme in detail. The overall presentation should not last more than 20 minutes and Chairs should ensure this. 

The project should be explained in a logical order, outlining the brief and describing the nature of the site and its context before moving on to a broad description of the design proposal, its urban and landscape design followed by the detail of the scheme. 

INFORMATION REQUIRED

Once a slot has been confirmed for a Design West review meeting, the design team will be asked to supply information about the proposed development as detailed below. This will be circulated to the Panel in advance of the meeting and should be received by the Design West Manager at least five working days prior to the review.

Synopsis

  • Location: a full address or geographical location, including details of availability of access for a site visit 
  • Description: a more extensive description of the building or works 
  • Status: pre-application, a current application, revision to a previous application, not in the planning process (this information could be confidential) 
  • Main statutory constraints such as listed buildings, conservation areas, AONB
  • Up to date drawings

Additional Materials

The volume and detail of additional materials required will vary according to the size of the scheme. It is always important to show the physical context in which the scheme is being developed and its relationship to the surrounding fabric, topography, amenities, services and transport network.

This almost always requires some plans, models or views that illustrate the surroundings well beyond the site boundaries. Dependent on the stage the scheme has reached the following material may be helpful:

  • Plan showing the site in relation to adjoining properties, access routes and the movement network
  • Location plan showing the site in relation to its wider context
  • Context analysis of the site and its surroundings that embraces historical development, landscape and townscape setting, listed buildings and conservation areas including nature conservation designations, and impending changes in character and accessibility along with any planning history
  • Environmental impact assessment; traffic impact assessment; movement and access strategy including Design and Access Statement
  • Site plans clearly showing land ownership including public and privately owned areas and the extent of land owned by the client. These should indicate the specific areas that are to be built on, buildings for demolition, retention and/or refurbishment
  • Sections across the site, especially where the topography is an important factor
  • Landscape analysis, topography and details of the landscape approach
  • Plans, sections and elevations of proposed buildings and/or streets
  • Photomontages and verified views demonstrating the development in its context
  • Detailed drawings communicating the architectural approach and materials

The information above should be supplied electronically and can be provided in the format of a draft presentation. The objective of this information is to enable the Panel to fully brief themselves and will make the Review more useful to all concerned.

All information will be held as confidential.

DESIGN REVIEW FORMAT

The Chair will then initiate questions, comments, and discussion on the proposal from all members of the Panel seeking a response from the design team. It is important that all members of the Panel express any fundamental issues with, or reservations about, the project openly to the presenting team. The detail of questions should relate to nature and design stage of the proposal.  They should always take care to be courteous in their cross questioning and commentary and be sure to accord the presentation team and planning officers the professional respect they deserve.

At the end of the discussion sometime the Chair may ask the presenters, the LPA Officers and other representatives to withdraw. The Chair will then seek the views of the Panel to compile a list of the key design matters that they wish the presenters to consider further. The presenters, planning officers and other representatives will then be invited back to hear the Chair’s summary which will state the consensual view of the Panel, but there will be no further discussion save for clarification of the Chair’s key points.

The Chair or Panel Secretary will then confirm this in a formal letter 

THE REVIEW REPORT

Following the review Design West will issue a formal response in writing to the presenters, detailing the views of the Panel. This will be issued within 10 working days of the meeting. 

The Panel Chair will draft the report which will be sent to each Panelist for additional comment or elaboration via email. A final draft will then be sent to the DW Manager who will make any final edits and be responsible for issuing the report to the presenters, simultaneously emailing a copy of the letter to local authority representatives.  

Best practice and experience suggest that the advice from the Panel to the planning authority, the developer, client or designer is only as good as the written report that conveys it. The report will normally be addressed primarily to the local planning authority but also to the scheme’s client and design team. 

Writing the report involves turning the Panel’s comments into a coherent narrative to provide advice which can be acted on. It should:

  • be clear and succinct and written in plain English
  • offer a bullet point summary whenever possible setting out in detail the panel’s conclusions on a scheme
  • point out where the strengths and weaknesses lie—in the brief, the aims, and objectives of the client, or in the design
  • contain a robust grasp of design issues
  • be frank about the design quality and be constructive in the concluding advice
  • be objective and robust enough and clearly based on the design principles that have been established in national and local policy and guidance
  • offer any best practice examples if applicable
  • not attribute comments to individual members of the DRP

The Chair has a critical role in assuring the quality of the written report and in incorporating the comments of fellow panellists on the draft. The Chair’s letter will be most useful to the recipients if it is written in a concise way that clearly identifies the design issues that need addressing and the actions most likely to resolve them. 

CONFIDENTIALITY AND PUBLICATION OF THE REPORT

When a scheme is in the public domain – that is, if it is the subject of a registered planning application or is being publicised by its promoters – then the letter addressed to the presenters can be considered a public document. 

In the event that a scheme is not in the public domain, the Panel’s view will not be made public, and the letter is marked ‘Confidential. Restricted circulation: this letter is not for publication’. It is sent only to those presenting the scheme, to the relevant local authority and to the DW Panel members who took part. 

REPEAT REVIEWS

A scheme may well be brought back to DW by a client, design team or the local authority after a full session for further consultation. Repeat reviews during scheme design development are often beneficial to the process.  Design West will endeavour to bring the same Panel back to deliver this to ensure continuity. 

AFTER THE MEETING

Within ten working days of the meeting, Design West will issue a letter giving the guidance of the Design Review Panel. It will focus on how well the scheme relates to the principles of good design and will seek to clearly identify the design issues that need addressing and the actions most likely to resolve them.

The letter will be sent to the main contact in the design team. An email copy will be sent to the planning case officer, other appropriate officials and, when appropriate, to Historic England. 

When a scheme is in the public domain – that is when it is the subject of a registered planning application, then the guidance letter is a public document. In any other circumstances, including when the scheme is the subject of a pre-application enquiry, the nature of the proposals, the comments from the Panel and the content of the letter will remain confidential.

A NOTE ON STRATEGY REVIEWS

Strategy reviews will be organised from time to time when the LPA have need of design advice on matters of policy, guidance, action or masterplans, regeneration or area strategies. The Design West Manager will contact the Strategy Chairs to set up a meeting to discuss what is to be reviewed, what advice is sought, and what documentation will be provided. The Manager will then proceed to organise the meeting and assist the Chair in establishing a Strategy Panel, ensuring that the necessary documents are provided two weeks in advance for the Panel to access.

Strategy Reviews can be more workshop based but still need to be very professionally run and very well structured. The same broad processes adopted for Design Review can be adapted for Strategy Reviews. Presenters and Chairs will work with the DW Manager to define the requisite pre meeting materials and all other matters. A verbal report will be provided on the day and a letter will follow to the City Design Group within ten working days.    

November 2021

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you require further information please contact our Panel Managers: julie.tanner@designwest.org.uk or pippa.goldfinger@designwest.org.uk