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Review of Merton Council Design Review Panel

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Like many local authorities, Merton Council uses a Design Review Panel to assess the design quality of new developments.

This consists of external architects, urban planners, transport planners, landscape architects and other professionals who assess plans, often well before a building application is submitted.

We welcome a design review. When used transparently and properly, it can provide insight and support to improve the quality of the design. There are also risks, especially when it operates in a deep-seated culture that sees the Design Review Panel’s role as a closed group of behind-the-scenes consultants separate from normal standards of public scrutiny or engagement.

Government policy is increasingly emphasizing design quality and the role of design review and it is also featured in Merton’s new Local Plan. It is therefore time for Merton’s approach to be brought to the attention of the Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel and we highlighted a number of issues and concerns in a detailed submission.

The bottom line is that Merton’s Design Review Panel is not fit for purpose.

It does not meet the industry standard and the Merton Council has chosen not to adhere to the Mayor of London’s Quality Review Charter.

Merton is an outlier because the chair of the Planning Applications committee, even as chair of its Design Review Panel, is seemingly unaware of the problems this causes.

Evidence suggests that Merton’s constitutional safeguards to avoid any conflict are being violated – including the then Chairman of the Planning Applications Committee who voted to grant planning permission for a development that was the subject of a design review at a meeting they also presided.

The Design Review Panel has other shortcomings, including:

  • no agreed job description
  • no details about the panelists and why they are qualified to serve
  • no control over the duration of the employment of panel members, sometimes exceeding 10 years
  • no transparent mechanism for dealing with conflicts of interest where panel members are
  • working on development projects in Merton
  • not publishing reports or announcing meetings in advance
  • Keep reviews of Merton Council’s own developments behind closed doors
  • the same officer who provides professional urban planning advice also heads the Design Review Panel and writes its reports
  • conduct review by email despite commitments not to do so and not publish its content, even if the meetings would otherwise be held in public
  • operating an outdated traffic light system that rates schedules as red, amber or green and is regularly abused
  • have not assessed some controversial developments, including a large apartment building on Metropolitan Open Land at Imperial Fields, described by the Merton Council design officer as an ‘office building in a parking garage’

We have made 22 recommendations for reforms that ensure the integrity of the design review and ensure that the Design Review Panel operates transparently and effectively. These can all be delivered in six months.

You can read our submission in the Design Review Panel here

You can also view our submission as a paper for the Merton Council Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel meeting on February 23, 2021 here

You can view that meeting and Design Review Panel meetings at Merton TV

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