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GUMMER GETS A TASTE FOR DESIGN

AGENDA

The Conservative Party has suddenly become interesting again; interesting in a way that it has not been for well over a decade. One of the reasons for this is that they have decided to sit up and take note of the issues that command the attention of normal, intelligent people.

Not just asylum seekers, the European Union and the age of gay consent, for example.

The important topics finding their way back on to the Tory agenda include, amazingly, architecture, urban design, planning and housing.

It's incredible how quickly politicians can change their tune. In May last year - just before the general election - the AJ interviewed shadow planning minister John Hayes, who appeared frighteningly uninterested and ignorant in his brief (AJ 21.04.05).

Hayes has now thankfully disappeared and David Cameron, the new, ever-sosmooth leader, has decided to carry out a complete review of every Conservative policy. Not along departmental lines but instead along broader, more general, areas such as 'quality of life' - which is the area that takes in architecture et al.

And the man Cameron has picked to chair this group is our old friend John Gummer.

Yes, that's right; the very same John Selwyn Gummer who, as Conservative environment secretary in the early Nineties, persuaded his young daughter to eat a beefburger in front of the massed ranks of TV cameras at the height of the Mad Cow Disease crisis.

While the press has focused at length on Tory determination to adopt the issue of climate change and the environment, which is also part of Gummer's brief (alongside vice-chairman and Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith), few have realised that Gummer - and his gang of academics, politicians and media 'experts' - will also assess the party's urban design, planning and housing policy.

This is apparently not the first time Gummer has taken an active position on architecture.

The politician, who can be characterised as a one-nation Tory, claims that he promoted the importance of good design in the early Nineties, when he was a leading member of John Major's cabinet.

When it comes to Cameron's new brand of consensus politics, the veteran MP appears at first to be very on-message. For example, Gummer is passionately keen to work with Richard Rogers' Urban Task Force report, which was commissioned in the early days of the New Labour government. 'I am hoping to get input from many architects - and I do know Lord Rogers and I think he has a lot to offer, ' he says. 'I think his report also has a lot to offer and could have been used a lot more effectively than it has.

I want it to be used as one of our starting points when we are assessing policy, ' he continues.

Don't forget that Rogers is a long-standing Labour peer.

However, it doesn't take long for Gummer to break his cover and return to a bit of knock-about partisan politics.

'John Prescott is the worst housing minister we have ever had, ' he says angrily. 'At the very least he is the worst since the First World War.

'He is now trying to make up for these major failings by intruding houses into the countryside that should clearly be built on brownfield sites.

We need to look at this policy post-haste.' This is clearly a long-standing gripe of Gummer's and his comments on the subject will carry a lot of weight with the instinctive rural Tory voters with whom the party needs so desperately to reconnect.

And then, with all the consummate skill of the professional politician, comes Gummer's money quote: 'It has taken this country 1,000 years to build on 7 per cent of the countryside. What Prescott is proposing is that another 1 per cent will go in the next 12 years. I find that shocking.' What is clear is that Gummer does have a very real passion for architecture and the built environment. It may be a more traditional, Classicist passion that the likes of Robert Adam would comprehend more easily than many of the more progressive AJ readers, but at least it is architecture. That's a lot more than could be said for most politicians.

'Britain went through an enormous philistine period between the end of the Second World War and the early Nineties, when most decisionmakers seemed to almost make a virtue of vulgar Brutalism, ' he says. 'This was the period when it seemed to be accepted that it was a morally good thing not to have any decoration or art.

'When I was secretary of state for the environment I like to believe I began to reverse this attitude, making art and architecture more important.

This is what I would like us to carry on doing. It is too important for the quality of life of people to ignore these things.

'I believe that this also makes sense if you are talking about sustainability, because if you are going to build buildings to last, then it makes sense to make sure that they are beautiful, ' Gummer continues, with the sound of some belief in his voice.

This then is the point.

While it is still not socially acceptable to be a Tory in whole swathes of the architectural community, one cannot help but be pleased that even the Conservatives give the appearance of having come round to the importance of good design in the development of new communities. They've come some way since Mrs T, haven't they?

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