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It's OK to innovate: civil servants loosen their ties

News

What a tragic waste that one of the most impressive displays of 'joined- up' government on architecture and the built environment was witnessed by so few last week, in a day-long seminar in London (£269 a place) organised by qmw Public Policy Seminars.

There were top civil servants from the Departments of Culture, Media and Sport and Environment, Transport and the Regions, clearly revelling in the new risk-taking, owning-up to innovating culture emanating from No 10. What a breath of fresh air. There were three Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment commissioners - two on the floor and one on the platform.

All were enthusing about the surprising willingness of the government's building patrons to embrace best value in design rather than lowest cost. Much of this was made possible by the positive attitudes of Steve Robson and Mike Birt at the Treasury. The Egan duo of the detr's director of construction John Hobson and Construction Industry Council chair Robin Nicholson were on a roll but saw the challenge of converting the rest of the world to being 'risk positive' as uphill.

Under his Urban Task Force hat Ricky Burdett gave us the Bill Hillier 'Space Syntax' and up-the-density view of how English cities must evolve. Deyan Sudjic rolled out the Glasgow experience as an impressive demonstration of joined-up bottom-up and top-down quality design action at a city scale, sparked off by a £400,000 grant from the Arts Council, which then gained £6 million from Glasgow City Council and £30 million from the eu, regional agencies and the private sector.

While some at the seminar owned up to 'yomping' round the European big- city big-project trail, through Holland, Spain and Scandinavia (and no doubt Glasgow), the firm steer from the one Cabinet Office special adviser present was 'petits projets' - 250 'Sure-Start' facilities for the under- threes and new thinking on location and environments for the delivery of benefits and jobs. A Cabinet Office report under the Social Exclusion Unit is due soon.

This all chimed in neatly with Lucy Musgrave's presentation of the Architecture Foundation's 'Roadshow' and 'School Works' projects, which demonstrate how architecture and environment can become central to the national curriculum.

Of course the danger in singing from the same hymn sheet is that the collective enthusiasm and pressure to seize the moment can paper over some major intellectual fault lines.

Although everyone is signed up to design quality, the civil servants will still be nervous until they have auditable proof that good design brings benefits. They clearly don't have it yet, although the detr is working hard on it. Glasgow has to claim 850,000 visitors, and 14 per cent more bednights booked, while knowing really that the investment for a potential long-term younger-generation client base is incalculable.

When you hear one of the key promoters of the good-design camp opening his talk with the recognition that he wants to go slower because there is 'an opportunity for a great cock-up', you can sense the new risk-loving mandarins tremble. But, with the ecological guru Amory Lovins due soon to make a sustainabiltity makeover of No 10 (see page 66), life-cycle ecological auditing (with good design assumed) is on the inside fast track.

There may be a yawning gap between the top-down of Urban Task Force 'capuccino city' thinking and the bottom up 'Roadshow' methodology - existing local democracy, councillors, officers and the like. A revisit to the outcomes of the 1970s' equally radical central government-inspired Community Development Programmes might offer some salutary lessons.

The decades of architecture schools ignoring the teaching of design participation skills, will become a glaringly obvious deficiency when push comes to shove on the 'Roadshow'. This gap is potentially even more problematic with so few streetwise architectural facilitators remaining at the heart of local or even regional government (unlike Scotland) to hold the politicians' hands.

There is no short cut to clients paying up front for, and making time for early creative lateral thinking, before any supply-side contract is signed.

A slide of Europe from outer space showed England as the largest most densely populated land area. Urban Task Force thinking and action can supposedly therefore conveniently ignore Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and anyway they have devolved, haven't they? The Architecture Foundation Roadshow dissemination of good practice is very pointedly to the English regions only. The dcms regional cultural consortia under and through which cabe may disseminate, may also be England only. So it seems we need some relabelling. Celtic fringe beware.

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