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CABE in Home Office HQ warning

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has issued a thinly-veiled warning to the government that its much-vaunted 'better public buildings'policy could be undermined by weaknesses in the plans for the new Home Office headquarters.CABE published its views on Terry Farrell & Partners' design for the Marsham Street scheme on Monday and warned that planning restrictions and the design brief had produced 'an unsatisfactory situation'over the the scheme.

In a diplomatically-worded report, the Commission's design review committee said: 'We have little doubt that, taken in the round, this scheme delivers less than could have been hoped for the redevelopment of this site.

In view of the government's welcome commitment to Better Public Buildings, it would be unfortunate if the benefit to the public of redeveloping this site for the Home Office were less than if it had been a speculative office development.'However, CABE praised the 'strong and dignified presence'of the building and described it as 'a successful if restrained piece of design'.

The six-building offices and housing scheme will replace three long-reviled towers which Michael Heseltine first earmarked for demolition in 1992.It is the first major government building reviewed by CABE since its inception in 1999.

Normally CABE points the finger at under-performing architects, but now it has fixed its sights on the government and the planning authority, the London Borough of Westminster.

CABE said the project's key problems are the Home Office's demands for security - which means that there can be no public uses at ground level - and the outline planning consent which restricts development to six storeys and was intended for a commercial development.The design panel slammed the consent as 'an overreaction' and 'excessively restrictive'. It called for flexibility in the planning regime to allow for taller buildings and more public space between them.

Although the procurement process for Marsham Street predates the Labour government's commitment to improving public architecture, the criticisms are still likely to be embarrassing for the government.CABE itself is a government body and has lobbied Labour hard to boost the standard of architecture across government.Policy victories for CABE this year have included the appointment of ministerial design champions in each department across government, the publication of a string of government pledges to improve design in PFI projects, of which Marsham Street is one, and the end to procurement on the basis of lowest cost. 'I hope, if we were to start the procurement [of Marsham Street] today, we would end up with a better building, 'said CABE chief executive Jon Rouse.

Just days before the report into Marsham Street was published the prime minister Tony Blair spoke out in praise of modern architecture and its integration into public buildings, and last month launched a report which called on government departments to 'stop being afraid to take risks'.

Architects with Terry Farrell & Partners declined to comment on the report but colleagues in the profession continue to report difficulties in designing for government. 'It has become extremely difficult, ' said Ahrends Burton Koralek partner Richard Burton, who completed the Moscow embassy earlier this year.'The PFI process has become enormously complex. There is a mixed bag of different departments across government operating in different ways.But from the Foreign Office point of view they were an extremely good client.'

The Marsham Street scheme has been submitted for detailed planning application and will be the subject of a public exhibition next month.

CABE also voiced support for Arup Associates' Gloucester Docks leisure scheme and warned that a Jane Darbyshire & David Kendalldesigned residential scheme in Sunderland is not yet 'entirely successful' in architectural terms.

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