United voice

The merger of the Design Council with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment marks huge changes. Lynda Relph-Knight reflects on the new charity’s broader remit and implications for the design community

Design Council
Clockwise from left: chief executive and policy director David Kester; head of Cabe Services Di Hague; director of design innovation and networks Ellie Runcie

In less than 48 hours the Design Council is set for radical change. No longer a non-governmental organisation, following the dictates of the Government’s quango review last October, it will be reborn on Friday as a charity merged with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and so covering a broader remit for design.

David Kester, who remains chief executive of the new regime, says the council will be ’pushing the reboot button’. He describes the merger with Cabe as ’philosophically very exciting. There is a tremendous amount of alignment [between the two] and a sense of enabling and facilitating at the heart of both organisations.’ We are, he says, seeing a wider spectrum of design at the heart of current social and economic change. ’We will be smarter as a nation by exploiting all of the design spectrum,’ he says.

The council will continue to advise Government on design and, while funding will come from various sources, it will receive £4m a year for four years from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to support ongoing projects relating to healthcare, combating crime and addressing issues such as climate change through design, which became an unofficial mandate for the council following last summer’s Temple Review. Its portfolio will still include work with business, the public sector, education and science and technology, but it will be more of an enabler than a doer than it was previously.

There is a tremendous amount of alignment…We will be smarter by exploiting all of the design spectrum

David Kester, Design Council

The Cabe element of the council will meanwhile continue to receive £2.75m a year for the next two years from the Department for Communities and Local Government, though it lost funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Comprehensive Spending Review. But its remit now is to look at the services it delivers through collaboration with local architecture centres, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Landscape Institute and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, among others – notablyits reviews of architectural schemes as part of the local planning process – and consider how its services might follow a new model against a backdrop of a changing planning system.

’Cabe plays a very embedded role,’ says Kester. It will address ’how it is conceived for the future in a changing planning system’.

There has been much to consider in the change process, not least redundancies, with a third of the Design Council’s former team axed and Cabe reduced to 20 ’highly expert’ staff. For the merged body – still dubbed the Design Council and operating from the council’s offices in London’s Bow Street under the red identity designed by The Partners in the mid-1990s – this will be ’a transition year’, according to Kester. The focus will be on ’bringing in the right people’.

While Kester, as chief executive, will assume the policy portfolio, the new executive team will include Mat Hunter, who remains chief design officer with responsibility for the council’s ’challenges’ and innovation, while Marianne Guldbrandsen is head of design strategy. Ellie Runcie is meanwhile retained as director of design innovation and networks to oversee business and innovation projects and provide a link with the networks, including the Design Alliance, which the council will continue to support.

They are joined by architect Di Hague as head of Cabe Services. Kester explains that a subsidiary company, Design Council Cabe, is being registered with Companies House to employ former Cabe staff. This is not a trading vehicle, but a technical device to help with the declassification from public-sector to charitable status and help manage risk.

Two more senior appointments – chief operating officer and head of policy research – will be made in due course.

Going forward, the main thrust of the Design Council as a charitable body will be three-fold, Kester says, closely adhering to Treasury guidelines. It will need to prove good governance, it has to manage risk – something charities cannot take – and distance itself from the public sector by introducing sufficient changes in its composition.

To this end, it will be introducing a raft of new trustees and members of an advisory panel that will build on the interests represented by both of the previous bodies.
The call has already gone out for applicants to join the ten-strong trust board (DW 24 March). Five or six places are available to join two former Design Council councillors and two former Cabe commissioners. They will oversee the running of the council – as trustees do with all charities – and so their appointment is a priority.

The advisory board will, meanwhile, be 15-strong and meet three times a year. It will be ’an open space for debate around policy’, says Kester. ’It’s about engagement at high level in the UK and internationally, addressing business in the broadest sense, design, education and policy,’ he adds. ’It is an opportunity to have a big debate.’

While the changes to the Design Council are huge, for the design community it looks like business as usual in the short term. Initiatives such as Patient Dignity and its bid to reduce crime in hospitals’ accident and emergency departments continue, as will the funding of small, design-related projects through grants.
The picture is not yet complete, but the addition of Cabe’s area of expertise into the mix can only enrich the Design Council’s work.

Design Council executive

  • Chief executive and policy director David Kester
  • Chief design officer Mat Hunter
  • Director of design innovation and networks Ellie Runcie
  • Head of design strategy Marianne Guldbrandsen
  • Head of Cabe Services Di Hague
  • Head of communications Nigel Campbell
  • Chief operating officer and head of policy research posts have yet to be filled

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