A Design Quality Unit must be established if the government is to succeed in its stated ambition to deliver good urban development, a coalition of design organisations has urged.

They say the Coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance a high-quality built environment to people’s wellbeing – and how disadvantaged those are who lack sufficient living space or access to green space, local amenities and walkable neighbourhoods.

The campaign was launched in May by groups including the UCL-based Place Alliance, the Academy of Urbanisation, Civic Voice and the Trees & Design Action Group. Another signatory is the Design Council – which ironically took over the residue of the previous Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2010), after the thencoalition government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

The suggested design quality unit was vital if the momentum created by the government-appointed Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) was not lost, the groups behind the campaign say.

Co-chaired by Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, the BBBB Commission issued its final recommendations in January, with housing and communities secretary Robert Jenrick vowing to implement ‘as much of it as we can’.

The group of organisations wanting the new design quality unit have produced a report ‘Delivering Urban Quality: Time to Get Serious’ in support of their campaign. They say it is ‘difficult to see how the BBBBC’s propositions will be delivered without a determined and very public effort by government that also reaches out and harnesses the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the sector at large.’

UCL Bartlett School professor Matthew Carmona, chair of the Place Alliance, said England was being left behind by the rest of the UK as well as mainland Europe in not having a national body to systematically make the case for design.

Last year he led a national housing design audit which found that three quarters of homes built by volume housebuilders were of poor or mediocre design.

Following from the publication A Housing Design Audit for England and the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report, Living with Beauty, Place Alliance coordinated a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, calling for clear action on their findings.

The coalition of organisations say the Housing Design Audit for England revealed a systematic failure to deliver good quality urban development across England for decades, particularly in new residential environments, and in layouts not properly accounting for movement on foot and by bicycle rather than car.

To drive the necessary culture change required focus, capacity, leadership and resourcing. Together with the Academy of Urbanism, Civic Voice, CPRE, Design Council, Trees & Design Action Group and Urban Design Group, Place Alliance urge the government to set up a dedicated Design Quality Unit for England in order to confront the challenges head on and focus attention on the delivery of better design.

They say there is a direct and indisputable linke between the quality of places and their place value, or how they enable users to sustain healthy, socially rich, economically productive lifestyles that minimise environmental impact.

The group also claims that “on the basis of the experience of the past two decades, it is difficult to see how the BBBBC’s propositions will be delivered without a determined and very public effort by Government that also reaches out and harnesses the knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of the sector.”

The BBBBC report had offered a valuable analysis and template for the Government and the country to re-focus collective attention on the quality of the places in which we live, they say. To carry this forward would require an organisation with the capacity, focus and resourcing to help drive the culture change required, across government (national and local), across industry and across the country at large, in city, town and country.

You can view the pamphlet Delivering urban quality – time to get serious, which sets out the case for a design quality unit for England.