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THE POST-PRESCOTT ERA BEGINS

AGENDA

As the dust settles on the most radical cabinet reshuffle since Tony Blair's astonishing 1997 election victory, the fallout for the world of architecture is far from clear.

What is certain is that John Prescott has had his enormous, sprawling department, the ODPM, taken away from him and in his place on the housing front we now find Ruth Kelly, the new secretary of state at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Many of the details of this change are not yet agreed and will probably only become clear over the forthcoming weeks.

For example, at the moment no-one is entirely sure who is going to replace Prescott as the politician who decides the ultimate outcome of planning inquiries and appeals.

Pointers suggest that it will be Kelly, but the government has, so far, not ruled out former ODPM minister and rising political star David Miliband, who has taken over at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of the break-up of Prescott's old department. And traditionally it would be the environment secretary who would decide on this issue.

But what is most critical for observers in this profession is that, as yet, no-one knows where either of these politicians stand on architecture. Would they, for example, have acted like Prescott did and approved Broadway Malyan's contentious Vauxhall Tower if the inspector's report into the skyscraper had landed on either of their desks?

The policy consequences of the change from ODPM to DCLG have not come to light just yet either. One of the key questions is whether Kelly will decide to drop the Pathfinder Initiative. This week speculation has been rife that the government will take departmental shake-down as an opportunity to ditch the highly controversial plan, which would see thousands of homes in the north of England demolished as a way of forcing up depressed house prices.

One observer summed up this speculation. 'Think about it, ' he said. 'With the government embroiled in controversy in almost every other area, it would make sense for Kelly to look at the Pathfinder Initiative and decide to quietly drop it. The last thing they need is yet more argument - and that's what they're going to get from residents.'

This makes even more sense when you take into account the fact that Kelly's constituency, Bolton West, is in the heart of England's postindustrial North West, one of the areas most affected by Path-nder.

And a source who works on the initiative in Liverpool lent even more weight to this thinking. 'I reckon we'll be OK because our proposals are so far advanced, ' he said of his own Path-nder area. 'But if I was working on one of the less advanced ones, then I'd be worried.'

It is well known that Prescott was one of the driving forces that kept the Path-nder initiative on track, despite hostility from within and without government.

There is also the wider Sustainable Communities Plan, the policy which would mean hundreds of thousands of new homes built in the South East to ease the perceived housing drought, for Kelly to consider.

While this strategy has triggered much local nimbyism it has not been criticised to the same extent as Path-nder, and as such is likely to be retained.

But with the government now in an almost constant state of ux, does anyone really believe the vast Thames Gateway development is going to get off the ground?

And then there is possibly the most unlikely story of Prescott's nine years in charge of the ODPM: his bizarre alliance with architecture's old nemesis Prince Charles.

This manifested itself most prominently in the recent addition of design codes to the plethora of planning regulations - a policy that had the Prince's -ngerprints all over it.

While observers believe that these changes are probably beyond the point of no return, there will be many who hope this 'double act' - illustrated by the frequency with which Prescott visited Poundbury - will not be repeated.

Certainly it will take time for Kelly or any other minister to build up the kind of relationship with HRH that Prescott enjoyed - and that can be no bad thing. If only for this, architects can breathe a deep sigh of relief.

But perhaps the -nal word on Prescott's departure and Kelly's arrival should go to the planners themselves. The Royal Town Planning Institute is clearly in mourning for the loss of 'Two Jags'.

Rynd Smith, the institute's new head of policy and practice, said planners had genuinely bene-ted from the prominence of the discipline in Prescott's personal agenda.

'The planning function in the ODPM under John Prescott held a more important place than before, ' he told the AJ in the aftermath of the reshufe.

'And I suppose that the most important thing we could say right now is that we hope that Ruth Kelly understands that this should be continued'.

What can be in no doubt is that Prescott's departure does signal the end of an era for both architects and planners, and that from here on in nothing can be guaranteed.

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