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Labour or Lib Dem? Architects see little reason to vote Tory

As the election nears, Rob Sharp looks at the parties' shifting appeal and asks several observers and politicians to explain why a recent survey commissioned by the AJ has shown that the vast majority of architects will not vote Tory

The Pugin Room in the House of Commons is dirty. Not in a physical sense. The tablecloths are spotless. The curtains are probably taken down daily and pressed.

But there's something unclean about the feeling of power, of politicians helping themselves to champagne, lounging back in their seats and patronising their guests as they keep an eye out for their next appointment.

John Hayes, shadow minister for planning and architecture, sits opposite me. He leans over, putting one hand on the back of my chair, and punctuates his answers with remarks like, 'isn't that fair enough?' It's clear he's insecure discussing his subject.

'I think much of what was built between 1955 and 1995 wouldn't be missed, ' he says, echoing the Conservative Party's policy of favouring old versus new, Classical over Modern.

He goes on to cite his favourite buildings as St Paul's Cathedral and those at Prince Charles' Dorset brainchild, Poundbury. Such a reluctance to acknowledge the work of modern architects has made the Tories six times less popular with the architectural community than with the UK population at large.

A new Camargue survey of architects' voting preferences commissioned by the AJ (see table), sees the Tories haemorrhaging support by the second.

In response to this news, Hayes hardly exudes humility and respect for the profession. 'It may be that many feel they can't rise to the challenge in the face of the Conservative determination to create a built environment that enchants and inspires, ' he says.

Scepticism regarding the Tories is still pervasive. 'Voting Conservative has become unfashionable, ' says the recently retired Tory MP and architect Sydney Chapman. The reasons not to vote Tory if you're an architect are far-reaching, not least in their disregard for design and the Sustainable Communities Plan, which the party plans to scrap. Labour is leading the race in both the architectural profession and nationally. But the Liberal Democrats do seem to be capitalising on Tory gaffes and a gradually increasing mistrust of Labour. The question is whether that is enough to win over an increasingly apathetic electorate - including architects, who've had it good for the last two terms?

George Ferguson, president of the RIBA and a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, certainly feels that the Conservative Party has not come up with a coherent answer regarding what its alternative to the Sustainable Communities Plan might be.

'I think there's a feeling among the profession that they haven't taken the built environment as seriously as the other two parties, 'he says. 'It's just possible that under a Tory government the relatively steady state that the industry has seen after the last two terms might wobble.'

The latest national opinion polls conducted by MORI indicate that the populace as a whole is less supportive of Labour than the architecture profession. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the design community has always been left-leaning and has more to gain than most from an emphasis on the public sector - £100 billion of PFI work is currently in the pipeline.

The current national split is Labour 39 per cent; Conservative 35 per cent; and Liberal Democrats 21 per cent. Either way, planning minister Keith Hill will crow about how high up Labour's agenda design features;

unlike the Tories, whose manifesto barely mentions design or planning, bar a cursory referral to protecting green spaces in its parting pages. 'There is clear blue water between us and the Tories, in that we are interested in design, planning and architecture, and they are not, ' says Hill. 'I feel that my opponents - and I've told John Hayes this in the Commons - make up a lot of their policies in this area as they go along.' Given this distrust of the Tories' policies - and a feeling of impotence that accompanies voting for the status quo - support for the Liberal Democrats has rocketed. It's difficult for architects who may have lost trust for one party's leader and an opposition that seems to hate modern buildings. Many of the Lib Dems' policies make sense for the architectural profession.

It plans to make the PFI process more competitive, so that one preferred practice - through a penny-pinching world of secret handshakes - is not favoured from the outset.

The Libs Dems are also unafraid of modern architecture, or so says culture spokesman and MP for Bath, Don Foster.

He continues to blame failures at Bath Spa - where the council has become embroiled in a long-standing legal dispute over peeling paint and leaking floors - on contractor Mowlem. He points out that the historical presence of a spa at Bath has generated enough tourism revenue to knock £100 off each of his constituents' council tax. This will continue as a result of modern buildings in the city, he claims.

Similarly the Lib Dems' views on VAT equalisation - namely imposing the same level of tax on refurbishments and new build, thus encouraging the economic use of land - and scrapping topup fees will win allies among standard bearers for planning and education. But, like the Tories, it might not win too many friends in the world of Modernist architecture due to its plans to empower local communities to have a greater say over design.

Regarding the choice of who to vote for, maybe the answer's just staring the architectural community in the face. 'I don't think architects will find themselves in a completely alien world if party A or party B get in, ' says Chapman, a view echoed by several of the polled architects that the AJ has spoken to. In that case, why bother voting at all?

Refusing to side with any party is a fashionable cancer ripping through this country. Limiting the number of seats that Labour win is not going to influence how many or how few PFI projects are won and by whom.

For the public at large, stances on the environment, tax and the Iraq war are much bigger vote winners - architecture comes far down the agenda.

Even the RIBA seems braced for an inevitable Labour victory.

'There's no doubt that Labour will move in the right direction.

The question is, how fast?' says Ferguson. The national polls suggest that, come 5 May, Labour will avoid being punished for its mistakes. The architecture profession has a duty to continue to engage with the government over sustainability, good design and equal opportunities. That is, of course, if its members feel they can afford to wash their hands and play ball with a prime minister who alienated record numbers of people over a war condemned by the international community. It was this issue that caused the government to lose to the Lib Dems at the Leicester South by-election last year by a massive 13,000 majority.

Back in the Pugin Room, though, Hayes is not worried by the Liberals. He sits back and looks out of the window. He then stares me in the face, with so much force that I'm slightly wary he's going to hit the natural frequency of the Portmeirion and shower us in china. 'Those who vote Liberal, ' he says, with complete seriousness, 'want to give murderers the vote. They want to relax the laws on cannabis. They want to be soft on crime. People who want to vote for these things will also vote for them.' Like a lame caged animal, the Tories are lashing out. Let's see whether the electorate decides to put them out of their misery.

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