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rousing welcome

As the first chief executive of CABE, Jon Rouse is looking to unite the building environment professions. He believes his achievement in getting disparate groups to sign up to the Urban Task Force report is a good grounding

The first days of Jon Rouse's career as the new chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment will be the last for the organisation in the grand and austere headquarters of its predecessor, the Royal Fine Art Commission.

In a few weeks, CABE will transfer to the modern surroundings of a '60s tower block in Waterloo in a move which will eradicate the last physical reminders of its more controversial predecessor.

The commission is entering a new chapter, and the arrival of the removal men at the woodpanelled offices of 7 St James' Square can't come soon enough for Rouse who says he still 'pinches himself ' at the opulence of it all.

But with the move away from splendour comes no reduction in influence for the commission. By the end of this week, his first in office, Rouse will have held face-to-face meetings with the Prince of Wales, Tony Blair and John Prescott. When your job is to champion architecture in the UK, there can be few more influential contacts than these three. Rouse is undeniably well-networked at a political level as a result of a civil service career in the department of the environment during the last Tory government, a management position at the government regeneration agency, English Partnerships, and most recently a spell as secretary to the Urban Task Force.

The 32 year-old was brought up in both Bradford and Barnsley and traces his interest in urban policy to his childhood in cities struggling to cope with post-industrial life. 'I think your roots are very important, ' he says. 'I have stark memories of mills closing down and Bradford as a changing environment. That did have some impact on me and I think that the roots of what I ended up doing were laid very early.'

He claims his background also gives him an advantage against critics who attack CABE for being 'London-centric' and conversely those urban policy makers who think that 'England ends at Watford'. His vision for CABE includes a number of initiatives to shatter these perceptions to create an organisation that is 'truly national'.

After a degree in law from Manchester University, Rouse joined a fast-track training scheme for civil servants in London.He left to join EP, rising to policy director where he oversaw the start to regeneration of sites including the Greenwich peninsula. To cement his interest in regeneration, he took a part-time MA in urban policy. But the greatest test of Rouse's urban policy and political skills came when he joined the Urban Task Force in 1997, eventually drafting the final document.

Quitting a career in government to join the task force catapulted him into pitched battles between different construction industry professions. He remembers housebuilders and countryside campaigners, town planners and architects battling for their own interests.

'The most remarkable achievement of the task force was to get this group of disparate interests to sign up to the same documents, ' he said. 'It was partly because people want to do things for Richard Rogers because, frankly, he is so damn nice.'

But the success of the task force's report will mean nothing unless the government takes on its proposals in this autumn's planned Urban White Paper. Rouse admits the impact of the task force report has become a personal issue for him.He says that after the report was written, he felt the need to distance himself from the issues so badly that he enrolled on an MBA course in finance to give himself a different perspective on his career. It has also given him the ability to talk to developers and corporate clients in the language of money.

Now, with only around six weeks to go until the planned publication of the White Paper, he claims he still does not know which policies will be included.

'It has become difficult to distinguish between what I know will be there and what I want to be there, ' he says, revealing anxieties which stem from his view that a lot rests on the work of the task force. If accepted, he says, it could end 20 years of neglect of the importance of design in the planning process.

But while lobbying continues, Rouse must turn to his new role at CABE and what to do with the extra £2 million that government awarded to its budget this year, an increase of more than 100 per cent.

None of this money is likely to go to the proposed development of a network of regional architecture centres, Rouse says. For that he is hoping for a commitment from the department of the environment, transport and the regions to provide finance. Instead the money will be channelled into CABE's 'enabling' activities, to supply specialist advice to clients planning to procure buildings. In particular he wants to concentrate on hospitals and schools in the public sector and masterplans, housing and significant national buildings in the private sector.

He warns that architects will not get special treatment from CABE, and equal attention will be given to planners, surveyors and engineers.'We are champions of architecture, not architects, ' he says.

To this end he wants closer links with other professions, perhaps even shared headquarters with the Urban Design Alliance and a role in encouraging educational courses which transcend the boundaries between built environment professions.

In four years CABE will be moving again because its new tower block home has been slated for demolition. CABE's status by then will largely be down to the managerial fortunes of this ambitious, serious and, above all, young man.

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