Reviewing Merton Council’s Design Review Panel

In common with many local authorities Merton Council uses a Design Review Panel to help it assess the design quality of new developments.

This is made up of external architects, urban designers, transport planners, landscape and other professional who review schemes, often well before a planning application is submitted.

We welcome design review. When operated transparently and well it can provide insight and support to raise the game in the quality of design. There are also risks, especially when it operates in a deep seated culture that views the role of the Design Review Panel as a closed group of behind-the-scenes advisors that stands separate from normal standards of public scrutiny or engagement.

Government policy is placing ever more emphasis on design quality and the role of design review and it also features in Merton’s new Local Plan. It is timely therefore to have Merton’s approach put under the spotlight by the Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel and we’ve drawn a number of issues and concerns to its attention in a detailed submission.

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

It doesn’t meet the industry standard and Merton Council has chosen not to sign up to the Mayor of London’s Quality Review Charter.

Merton is an outlier in having the Chair of its Planning Applications Committee also as Chair of its Design Review Panel seemingly oblivious to the problems this causes.

There is evidence that Merton’s constitutional safeguards to prevent any conflict are being breached – including the then Chair of the Planning Applications Committee voting to grant planning permission for a development that was subject to design review at a meeting she also chaired.

The Design Review Panel has other failings including:

  • no agreed terms of reference
  • no details on the Panel members and why they are qualified to serve
  • no controls over the length of time Panel members serve, with some exceeding 10 years
  • no transparent mechanism for handling conflicts of interest where Panel members are
  • working on development projects in Merton
  • failures to publish reports or provide advance notice of meetings
  • holding reviews of Merton Council’s own developments behind closed doors
  • the same officer who provides professional advice on urban design also running the Design Review Panel and writing its reports
  • holding review by email despite commitments not to do so and failing to publish their contents even where meetings would otherwise be held in public
  • operating an outdated traffic light system that rates schemes as Red, Amber or Green and which is regularly abused
  • failing to design review some controversial developments, including a large block of flats on Metropolitan Open Land at Imperial Fields described by Merton Council’s design officer as an “office block in a car park”

We’ve made 22 recommendations for reforms which will guarantee the probity of design review and ensure the Design Review Panel operates transparently and effectively. These can all be delivered in six months.

You can read our submission on the Design Review Panel here

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

You can watch that meeting and meetings of the Design Review Panel on Merton TV