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A government chief architect would work for all political parties

Bryan Jefferson offered wise advice to ministers on subjects ranging from architectural competitions to policy, writes Paul Finch

We should be supporting the idea of a government chief architect, or perhaps chief design adviser, rather than squabbling about that person’s precise role and desk location, which is what seems to have happened.

The argument in favour of the post, forcibly put in the Farrell Review, is tacitly acknowledged by Whitehall, in the sense that so many departmental policies refer to the importance of good design, place, environment and so on. More importantly, the significance of architecture and design as a national resource would be brought into focus by such an appointment.  This would promote UK plc, if that is the language required to energise the Treasury into exploiting latent commercial opportunity.

Next come the issues of housing, health, education, community and ageing, where it is a commonplace that design has an important part to play - and that poor design may well scupper whatever well-intentioned initiatives may be launched.

Finally there is the question of what it means to be a civilised society in respect of the world we see around us: do we wish to live in ugliness and squalor, devoid of nature and the ‘city beautiful’? Do we wish citizens to experience a degraded public realm the moment they set foot outside their front doors? Or do we wish to see a world in which public space, parks, rivers and countryside are recognised and supported?

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It is sad to think these questions even have to be put, but at least we have the review commissioned by architecture minister Ed Vaizey. You might think he’d have a view about the desirability of a chief architect sitting within the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. This, after all, is where the last architect to have any influence in government was located. Bryan Jefferson, a former president of the RIBA and principal of his own practice (pictured), offered wise, non-partisan advice to ministers on subjects ranging from architectural competitions to issues of built environment policy. Bryan supported the introduction of the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment as a body that could offer disinterested advice to governments of any persuasion. Its absent-minded abolition was a matter of personal regret for Vaizey, who in some senses is trying to reintroduce its role without recreating a quango.

However, one problem with a chief architect operating from the culture department would be a presumption that the role is merely about making everything nice aesthetically. Hence the idiotic comments from the Home Builders Federation about a chief architect being an unnecessary extra ‘layer of bureaucracy’. No one is suggesting such a role should have planning powers attached (though in the case of some of the work produced by HBF members, a power of veto would be an excellent idea).

The RIBA thinks the role would sit best within the Department for Communities & Local Government. Design Council Cabe prefers the Cabinet Office, on the grounds that the role should be seen to operate across Whitehall. Another possibility is the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, since that is where responsibility for construction lies.

It may be optimistic to assume we will see a chief architect created this side of the next general election. Whatever happens, the need remains for a resource that government departments can call on when faced with the myriad problems of creating and managing a vast range of building types, from embassies to prisons to hospitals. As things stand, we are asked to believe that this should be left to the PFI sector and that its interests are synonymous with those of government and taxpayer. Welcome to Whitehall.

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