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Blair pushes design as vote winner

Senior government figures including the prime minister stepped up Labour's commitment to better designed public buildings this week by pledging to use architecture in the fight for greater social equality across the UK.

In advance of May's expected general election, chief secretary to the Treasury Andrew Smith MP claimed that good design could win voters' confidence and declared that the Treasury was 'interested in the role of good design in regenerating our most disadvantaged communities'.

He added: 'Good design, coupled with investment in areas like primary care, play areas and new housing will send out a powerful and confidenceboosting signal to the communities that we care.'

The department of environment, transport and the regions minister Beverley Hughes said that well-designed buildings 'make a very powerful statement about the people who use them and that means all people, particularly the minorities who are not easily noticed'.

Joining the co-ordinated approach, arts minister Alan Howarth said: 'It is not just the big landmark buildings which matter. Every health centre or school or job centre helps to make the character of the community.'

The statements, made at the CABE Building for the Future conference on Tuesday, represent the clearest signs yet of a new direction for government policy on public building procurement, which, until recently, has been dominated by the Treasury view that good design can save taxpayers'money.

'The benefits of good design are more important than they have been for 20 years, with public services suffering from years of underinvestment, ' said Smith. 'We can put behind us the days when people thought that Treasury concerns and planning and architecture didn't go together.'

And, according to the RIBA's government relations spokesman, Jonathan Labrey, the policy reflects the fact that the general election will be fought on 'quality of life issues' which can be tackled with the help of better design.

The statements came on top of the announcement of a new and prestigious prime minister's Better Public Building Award, backed directly by Tony Blair. This will become part of the AJ-sponsored British Construction Industry Awards.

The government line that better doctors' surgeries, schools and public spaces can help disadvantaged communities was supported by Southwark's director of regeneration, Fred Manson, in whose borough Damilola Taylor was murdered after visiting Peckham Library.

'Damilola's death still haunts us, ' he said. 'He went to the library quite frequently and made us think about what it really means to be a client.'

CABE chairman Sir Stuart Lipton welcomed the government's approach: 'The fact that so many senior government ministers are at the conference today, openly discussing how better design quality can be achieved, shows that the message is starting to hit home.'

But despite the government's stress on the social purpose of good design, Smith made clear that cost-saving was a key motivation for the government's interest in design.He pointed to savings of 30 per cent on building costs, achieved through changes to the method of procurement at BAA, and to 14 per cent reductions of treatment time as a result of a new hospital building in Hove.

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