Cracking the whip
After a spell 'below stairs', planning minister Keith Hill is finding his way in the world of architecture. And he's taking advantage of the freedom to talk about his new role
Somewhere deep in the bowels of Westminster lies the office of the governmental whips. It is a murky, secretive place, where the Parliamentary Labour Party's secret police meet to discuss the discipline and organisation of Tony Blair's backbench foot soldiers. It is not a pretty job. Only the most loyal, intelligent and ambitious of the party's MPs are ever recruited.
It is in this school of hard knocks that the new housing and planning minister Keith Hill has been working since the last election.
'But I am delighted to be free, ' he says. 'Being a whip is not a public job, and it's great to be able to get out and about and meet people and give interviews again. It's really refreshing'.
A cheerful soul, Hill does not fit the classic mould of a whip. It becomes immediately apparent that he really does like to talk, even to journalists.
Almost the first thing he says is that he is 'very green' - he has been in the job for just four weeks - and he soon provides evidence that he hasn't completely mastered his brief just yet. 'I do not have a background in housing or planning, ' he says, looking remarkably unruffled by the prospect of giving an interview on a subject about which he knows next to nothing. 'But I do have an enthusiastic amateur interest in architecture, ' he beams.
So we start at the beginning. Favourite buildings? 'I absolutely adore medieval cathedrals, ' he says. Not what you expect from a member of the government that spawned Cool Britannia. 'But I also love Richard Rogers' Lloyd's building and the 'erotic gherkin' - that is what they're calling it, isn't it? That's great too.' And then he surprises me. 'And I commissioned the work Norman Foster has just completed on Trafalgar Square when I was minister for London, ' he says proudly.
Throughout the AJ's half-hour 'slot', the 59-year-old former trade unionist and politics lecturer lounges in a large comfortable sofa in his impressive Whitehall office, looking rather relaxed. It seems that he really does like interviews, even when he is asked questions more serious than simply about his architectural taste.
Hill is pleased when the controversial issue of the moment, the PPG 7 country house clause debate, comes up. This is clearly a subject his civil servants have briefed him on. 'I understand the concerns of architects, ' he says, 'it is a great chance for them to deliver signature buildings. And I can see why they would want to keep it.
'But in my experience not many of the houses have been innovative. They have to pander to the tastes of both planning committees and the wealthy. But our decision to get rid of it is not an absolute.'
Hill also seems comfortable on the topic of the long-awaited planning bill. But this should be no surprise because, as a former whip, he will have followed its progress closely through the Commons. And he moves quickly to quash the widespread rumours of its demise. 'We are simply carrying it over into the next session of parliament. There is no chance of it being dropped altogether.
'It is very important that we get it through as soon as we can, ' he stresses. 'I am committed to making up the lost time and hitting our targets for the implementation of the reforms'.
The main reason, it seems, for the government's determination to see the bill through, is because Gordon Brown has decided that planning reform is essential if the UK is to ever join the euro. 'The chancellor is aware of developers' concerns about the planning system. He has said that the housing market is pivotal in the euro decision and it is certainly true that housing and planning have gone up the political agenda as a result, ' he says.
'We simply don't have a track record of building enough houses in this country.'
One of the many frustrating aspects of talking to the current government is that all its members use the same old clichés about quality design. It is impossible to tell whether they mean it or not. Unfortunately, Hill is no different and his answers to questions are littered with all the predictable expressions; an 'importance of good design' here and a 'high density' there.Whether Hill actually knows what these expressions mean or whether he plans to act on them is anybody's guess.
The architectural world, I tell him, has for a long time also been frustrated that governments of all colours are happy to let architecture wallow in a grey area between different departments, with no single point of reference. And the recent reshuffle - in which Hill was moved from the whips' office to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) - has made no difference.
Construction sits within the Department of Trade and Industry, planning and housing sits in the ODPM, while listing and the cultural promotion of architecture is in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Hill responds awkwardly that this should no longer be cause for concern, because 'we are much better than previous governments at cross-departmental joined-up-thinking'.
'I really do understand where the profession is coming from, ' he says before reverting to new-Labour type for safety. 'Architects should be in no doubt that there is a centrality of good design throughout all departments.'Whatever that means.
And does he have a message he wants to get out to the architecture profession at large? 'Of course, ' Hill responds, looking delighted. 'Architecture is not just an art, it is essential for the whole of society. This government has extremely high ambitions and it is going to set a whole set of new challenges, ' he says, finally getting into his stride. 'We will be there for them and we want them to be there for us.'