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Fisher quality initiative fails to convince Whitehall

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Arts minister Mark Fisher has failed in his quest to produce a coherent strategy for the procurement of high-quality public architecture and implement it across all government departments.

The failure was disclosed by Lord Rogers of Riverside in a hour-long debate in the House of Lords on Monday night organised by former heritage minister Lord Inglewood - the man who began Fisher's quest when he served under heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley - to investigate what steps Labour was making to lift standards in public buildings.

'Fisher has been working up proposals for some time but has been unable to convince the different departments to adopt this coherent approach,' Rogers told the House. 'That is a shame because, if we are to improve the standards of our buildings, we need a robust policy that crosses departmental boundaries. I ask the government to do this by backing the Department of Culture Media and Sport and by setting up a small committee which would ensure that the £4 billion of public money, and more, currently spent annually on our public buildings achieves the best results.'

In an interview with the aj last July, Fisher declared his intention to produce advice for departments on how they could transform themselves into high-profile examples of good practice, via a document which was widely expected to be published shortly before Christmas. But it never arrived.

Lord Inglewood said the government had 'the greatest moral obligation to provide the benchmark for the rest of society', and, although it had commissioned good buildings such as Hopkins' Inland Revenue building in Nottingham and Evans & Shalev's Crown Court at Truro, he felt that sometimes rules about the custodianship of public money had prevented good buildings.

He told the aj that the Treasury was keeping a vice-like grip on expenditure: 'If you do everything on the cheap, you actually don't save money,' he said. Like a Savile Row suit, he said, good buildings were expensive, but actually worked out cheaper in the long run.

Lord Palumbo told the House that the government's record in commissioning public buildings was 'woefully mediocre', with the exception of Colin St John Wilson's 'magnificent' British Library. His answer to ensuring quality was - as in Finland - a competition for each new public work using comprehensive and unambiguous briefs.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey said government's 'patchy' performance was because of a lack of thought about its role as a client. 'if we neglect design at the beginning because of penny-pinching at the procurement stage,' he said, 'then the price that we will pay will be very high indeed . . . The design fees on a building are usually less than 1 per cent of the lifetime costs of the building.' His suggestion was to open up the procurement process to as many people as possible, with exhibitions of designs.

Inglewood said he had been pleased with the cross-party harmony in the debate, which also featured Lord Hankey, Lord Howie of Troon, the Viscount of Falkland and Baroness Rawlings, who urged that the government support Daniel Libeskind's v&a project. Inglewood proposes to initiate change on standards of government procurement with another debate in 9-12 months' time.

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