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Charles: prognosis on NHS 'tsar'

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Prince Charles could wrench open old architecture wounds by championing NHS hospital design, warned one of Britain's leading designers of PFI hospitals this week.

The Prince's role is being kept secret until an announcement by health secretary Alan Milburn next month. But a source told the AJ he will chair a design committee and work with design champions appointed by each of the 23 NHS Trusts.

Mike Nightingale, senior partner of Nightingale Associates, feared that the appointment - confirmed by the Department of Health this week - could be used as a 'blunt instrument to arbitrate between styles'. Hospitals are complex and he must stick to healthcare principles, said Nightingale, whose firm signed off the first PFI hospital in 1997, a £100 million building in Dartford, designed with Paulley Architects. 'It worries me this will become a stylistic Poundbury-type of debate. It needs to be coordinated, with CABE perhaps, to ensure checks and balances and to stop him going out on a limb.'

He suggested the Prince read Florence Nightingale's Notes on Hospitals, much of which was still relevant.

The Prince's involvement had not been finalised, said CABE commissioner Sunand Prasad, a partner in Penoyre & Prasad. 'He won't personally go around advising every trust, but will be a catalyst to improve demand for good design within trusts.'

But Prasad said he thought using the Prince was excellent. 'This is about a figurehead and we live in a world where people are persuaded by figureheads. I don't think he will say the only way to design hospitals is with pediments.'

Richard Burton, a director of ABK, whose extension to the National Gallery was condemned by Prince Charles as a 'monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend', was wary: 'In the 21st century we cannot afford to be reactionary, especially in the medical environment. The Prince made a reactionary statement about the National Gallery and we cannot afford this kind of thing again; it is very, very dangerous.'

CABE chief executive Jon Rouse said the Prince had raised healthcare design to the top of the media agenda: 'He is good at getting across needs of the ordinary patient and will work with trusts on how to factor in good design and procurement.' Rouse insisted there would be a partnership between the Palace, CABE and the NHS and that 'there's a danger of us being reactionary because of his comments 15 years ago. We should look at the benefits and start with a clean slate.'

RIBA president Paul Hyett said involving Prince Charles was courageous and that the profession should not 'bellyache and whinge'. But 'I only hope he will be able to accept and encourage design on a more objective basis than perhaps some of his earlier interventions'. However, former president Max Hutchinson was less optimistic: 'I have difficulty believing this. Hospitals are among the most complex architectural endeavours. We have some of the finest healthcare designers and I can't imagine what he will bring to the party.'

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