Interview: Ben Hewett

Nov 3, 2011
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Last month, the Integrated Design Commission of South Australia (IDCSA) announced a new partnership with the Design Council – the British Government’s advisor on design. Through this new partnership, the IDC will borrow the design review structure employed by CABE in the UK (now a part of the Design Council) to promote the value of good design in improving the built environment. Australian Design Review caught up with SA Government Architect Ben Hewett to find out how this new design review process will be implemented in South Australia.

Ben, can you tell us who will be sitting on this new design review panel?
In terms of disciplines, there’s full gamut from the built environment: architecture, landscape architecture, urban design; various engineers including environmental, civil and structural; developers; planners – including social planning; industrial designers, graphic designers.

Does the minister for planning have a seat at the table?
No, these panels are independent; there’s nobody from government sitting on the panels. There will be 24 members: four panels with six members each, and specific panels for certain types of project. Unlike CABE [the Commission for the Built Environment, the British Government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space], which is a design panel that can look at anything.

What panel types would there be?
According to scale, we’d look at projects such as buildings and parks – things that are quite contained; then projects such as precincts and urban structures, masterplans and strategies; and then through to a larger infrastructural scale – larger projects, precincts or masterplans, that sort of thing.
We’ve also got professionals like industrial designers, graphic designers, manufacturing, heritage and public art specialists on a reserve specialist panel. There might be more specific projects coming to the panel, and these specialists could then be called in to complement the panel or replace a particular member if there was a conflict of interest. It gives us more range of specialities.

Where does the panel and the Integrated Design Commission (IDC) get their funding from?
The commission funds the design review panels, it’s one of our key objectives. And the IDC sits within the department of premier and cabinet. We have a budget each year from that department.

What kind of leverage will you have to make sure that the design panel’s recommendations are met or noted?
It’s not a statutory process. It’s an independent expert advisory panel, similar to the CABE model. The idea is that the panel is endorsed by the IDC. It isn’t happening in place of anything else – it doesn’t supplant the legislated approval process. It’s about providing independent advice early on, both to the design team and the client, and also to the relevant statutory authority. When a project gets to the point where it’s submitted for approval, that approval body will potentially have seen two or three design review letters – with comments about the project – and can understand how the design has changed and responded to that advice.

So the recommendation will be given to the applicant, not to the planning body itself?
The advice would also go to the planning authority.

It’s a voluntary process isn’t it?
Yes absolutely, it’s voluntary. And you have to apply to the IDC to receive a review. We determine whether or not the project is significant for the review. The idea is that the applicant knows the advice will be given to the planning authority – the local council, or state government.

And will the recommendations be made public?
It’s something we’d have to work with the applicant on. They would be aware that we do want to make this publicly available to make the process transparent and open, but at the same time you have to respect that they need a degree of confidentiality early in the process. It would be a case-by-case basis.

I noticed that CABE was quite active in lobbying for public attention with regards to projects it thought were untenable, or not in the public interest. Is that a role you would take with the panels?
Our mission is to inform, educate and engage. So making this process as transparent as possible would reinforce that. But we have to test a few projects so that we can understand at what stage we’re likely to get projects, and what that means. If it means people are reluctant to come to us early in the process for fear of revealing too much about a project, that’s a potential issue we’d need to work around.

Do you think there might be some fear that you guys might take a strident position with regards to the quality – or otherwise – of some of the projects that are submitted for review, much like CABE has?
Yes. I wouldn’t call it fear, but there is a concern, and perhaps it’s warranted. I would like to think our advice would be frank and fearless – it’s independent, and we’re looking at how to achieve the best result for the public domain and the project. That’s the advice, take it or leave it. But the process supports good design and developers with the right attitude. It makes their job easier, because we can say, ‘yes you’re doing well here’. In that way, it won’t slow down those who are doing the right thing. But it is going to lift the standard or quality of those that aren’t doing so well.

How does the Design Panel at the IDC relate to the precedent of CABE?
We have a licence agreement with them to use their design review process, but we’ll adapt it to the Australian conditions. We also have access to some of their publications, so we can offer written documents – adapted with local precedents – to applicants. It’s a two-way thing, too; they’re looking at the Integrated Design Commission structure. It’s the beginning of an alliance.

What examples are there from the UK that were positively influenced by CABE?
They tied design review panels to the funding for schools projects, so schemes had to meet a base level of design quality. CABE is very positive about the difference it made to the quality of school design. CABE was also involved in the London 2012 project, working in conjunction with the Olympic Delivery Authority to ensure projects delivered on good design, value for money and legacy for the future. They’re also involved with Crossrail, the high frequency rail project currently being built across London, due to open in 2018.

I’d like to talk about the 5000plus project. This has been described as a national pilot, so I assume this is potentially going to be rolled out nationally at some point?
It’s a design-led city renewal project that works across three tiers of government for the city. It delivers a vision for Adelaide, with all the partners working together to produce a series of expert forums. We just had that first stage, which saw 500 people talking about aspects of Adelaide, capturing that information and setting up a framework around it, with principles that support the vision, strategies to implement it and so on. The next part of it is a series of design testing around various possibilities for the city. Asking questions about how to integrate transport, planning, development, density, and deal with existing heritage and parklands – and producing proposals around those issues. The final stage is a series of recommendations on how to implement these, taking into account procurement models, demonstration projects, recommended project timelines. The part that the national government is really interested in is the implementation agreement between the different tiers of government and industry partners. We’re documenting this, and turning it into a model that we can deliver to the Federal Government to use at various scales for national projects.

It’s effectively a think tank looking at how cities can be regenerated?
Yeah, and it’s an emergent model. We’re experimenting, we know that it is innovative because there are a number of smaller failures that are occurring – as we test things, sometimes they don’t entirely work but that’s how we’re learning and that’s what innovation is. Innovation is a key word across government, but you can’t have innovation without failure and taking risks.

Is the ambition to use this process to develop regulation, or policy framework?
The project would reveal where policy might be getting in the way of achieving a vision, or what might need to be thought about differently in terms of policy to deliver a more vibrant, rich and dense city centre. It doesn’t immediately turn into policy, but it produces a series of recommendations that will then inform policy.

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07 Nov 11 at 9:33 AM • Bob Barrett

This looks to be just another qango using up funds from problem gamblers. Users are excluded.

But good on them for ‘selling’ themselves – Greed is Good say Macquarie I am led to believe.


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