Rethinking construction politically - so inertia doesn't win by default
In my introduction to the RIBA policy document Valuing Good Design, sent to the major political parties last week, I put forward four key challenges to government:
How can we ensure that the values of our public services meet the value of good design?
How can we ensure that good design is valued, not only for its own sake, but also economically, socially and environmentally?
How do we find a sustainable solution to economic problems that helps to enhance community spirit and build a sense of civic responsibility?
How can this work be achieved in a strategic, joined-up way across government, to reflect the fluidity of building use in the light of the changing nature of our society?
If the RIBA was not a serious minded and professional organisation, I might have added a frivolous fifth, which would run along the lines of: 'How do we modernize our inner cities without making them boring, safe, sterile, developer-deserts of franchised food and clothing outlets, culturally cleansed of sex, drugs and rock and roll?'
The struggle between the old guard 'top-down, we know what's best for you' school of planning that has its roots in Haussmann, the Ville Radieuse, the New Britain of the '40s and '50s and the 'bottom-up, design-fed not designled' PC soundbites of the new age, is in full swing and the profession is caught squarely between the two.The image of a formidable Goliath in the guise of the legal machinery of a top-down planning system, staggering under the weight of its own precedents and prejudices, facing a young, nimble David, roared on by 'the people' is an attractive one. Alas, it is not so clear cut. In reality 'the people' are just as likely to support Goliath, especially if he is decked out in period costume. But even if David gets a couple of hits here and there, as things stand Goliath will always win through sheer inertia and the fact that, as the maintainer of scarcity, he is champion and protector of all landowners. Politicians, architects, sociologists et al, are making all the right noises about regeneration, but the machine for delivering it across Britain just isn't there at the moment. Being a nation of shopkeepers is one thing but never clearing old stock, years past its sell by date, is quite another. The shelves are creaking with planning legislation, guidelines, advice and precedent. The rawlplugs are pulling out of the walls, yet legislative prop and mend is all we seem to be able to offer.
What, then, is the point of setting out RIBA policies for change? What is the role of the RIBA in the twenty-first century? One of the most interesting things to emerge from the policy discussions with members of the RIBA client forums was the huge challenge we all face in 'rethinking construction', not as a procurement issue but as a briefing one.What is the right brief for delivering health care and education in the electronic age?
What kind of buildings and facilities are needed? Are they basically the same as those of the last spending governments - of 25 years ago - or can we create more versatile spaces which allow, or even encourage, as yet undefined patterns of activity to take place?
It is imperative that the profession think these things through, and fast, before the next government plunges into a spending spree based on past formulae. We need a mechanism for restructuring departmental spending if we are to get good value for the taxpayer.
A dialogue with government is essential for our voice to be heard and I believe we have a huge amount to contribute. And, to cap it all, no one else can design and deliver beautiful buildings.
While chief salesperson Tony Blair and his team are busily selling packets of New Britain stacked on the floor at the front (and very nice some of them look too), for most of us, most of the time, the reality is that we are rummaging at the back of the shop looking for a lucky break.