TASK FORCE DELIVERS ITS VERDICT
Not so much a report as a 'report card'. That's the summary of the second coming of the Urban Task Force, charged with the task of 'sorting out' Britain's cities.
What's not clear is what grade to award the government for its pursuit of inner-city design excellence. The report seems to award a 'B' for achievement and a 'C' for effort.
It's come some way since 1999, but it could try harder.
'The difference between when Labour came to power and now is the sea-change in investment in inner cities, ' says task force member Ricky Burdett, 'not encouraging suburban sprawl.' Yet the government is far from perfect. 'The biggest deal at the moment is the quality of design, ' task force chairman Richard Rogers tells the AJ.
'We're still well below the standards we wished to reach [the first time the task force convened] and the best examples in Europe.' And Burdett agrees: 'There's a deeper issue about UK policy makers and their diffidence toward design, ' he says.
One of the key problems in achieving these lofty design exemplars seems to be the bureaucracy suffocating their delivery. While the task force called for delivery authorities to spearhead housing growth, it seems the government overcompensated - with authorities and acronyms coming out of its ears.
The reason for this is a concentration on the short-term benefits of attracting business to city centres, rather than the long-term benefits of good planning. This is reflected in the demographic of delivery authorities up and down the country. Burdett - for one - questions the lack of designfocused management at English Partnerships, which is somewhat laughable, considering that it seems to be a standard-bearer for central government's wish for cheap, well-designed housing. '[These authorities'] jobs are to promote business, not to create, beautiful, sustainable, integrated environments, ' says Burdett.
Rogers called on the Olympic Delivery Authority and Thames Gateway regeneration partnerships to work 'shoulder to shoulder' with designers, as happened in Barcelona in the run up to the 1992 Olympics.
Like Rogers, Burdett sees Europe as the example to follow. 'There's something intrinsically different between how a Dutch planner and an English planner view the world.
Design is much more ingrained in their DNA, ' he claims.
While Rogers scoffs at such a generalisation, he agrees there's a problem. 'It's a lack of land issue - over there they value what they have much more than we do. I don't know if it's endemic. But there's a real problem with the UK system.' It was apparent at the launch of the report that disagreements between the task force members ran fairly deep. They were split over how the government should tackle the 'fundamental problem' of urban renaissance - or design on a wider scale. While Rogers believes densities should be ratcheted up to prevent urban sprawl, senior planning academic Peter Hall believes lower densities are the solution to house families, with higher densities for single- and twoperson accommodation.
'I don't think builders would respond to calls for higher densities, and the targets set by the Barker Review [on housing delivery] would be compromised, ' he tells the AJ.
Hall sits as a planner should on the panel - as a mediator between the architects and the public - and his answer to improving Britain's grades is, to say the least, pragmatic.
'Flick through the Saturday supplements and look at the property advertised, ' he says.
'This is what people want - Edwardian suburban housing.
Architects now need to produce a new vernacular without compromising their standards.' Let's hope the government is listening.
THE URBAN TASK FORCE
ACHIEVEMENTS SINCE 1999
CABE is now an established champion of design quality;
There are encouraging examples of good design, such as the Millennium Village in Greenwich;
Transport investment has increased;
Congestion charging has gone some way to civilising congested roads.
The need for more houses is overtaking the need for good houses;
Decision-making structures still fail to prioritise design;
Design quality is not a key objective for public bodies with built-environment responsibility;
Design advice to ministers, mayors, local authority leaders and cabinets is too limited;
Design briefs are poorly written and structured;
Masterplanners are separated from other design teams in the development process - which leads to fragmented environments;
Community groups are excluded from decision-making processes.