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BSF review by Tesco/Dixons team sparks design quality fears

Fears are growing that the 700 projects that survived the Building Schools of the Future (BSF) cull last week (AJ 08.07.10) could be dumbed down by the newly appointed capital review team

The issue was highlighted by Alan Howarth during a debate in the House of Lords, in which he and fellow peer Janet Whitaker battled to ensure minimum design standards were included in the Academies Bill.

Howarth said he was concerned that the panel charged with simplifying procurement for BSF and future school projects included ‘experts’ from Tesco and Dixons Store Group.

Speaking in the House of Lords last Wednesday (7 July), Howarth said: ‘I do not think that the most ardent admirers of Dixons and Tesco… would claim that they have been patrons of fine architecture: rather the reverse.’ (see full speech below)

‘The banality and triteness of the design of modern supermarkets is a sad and indeed disgraceful falling away from the best of our historic traditions in the design of department stores and shop fronts.

James Berry, director at Woods Bagot, agreed: ‘If the debate comes down to how cheaply you can deliver square footage then it’s a problem and misses the fundamental point - the reason why we are rebuilding schools [namely to create] a flexible education system for our young people to prepare them for a fast moving world.

‘Having spent a lifetime in a different industry it could be really difficult [for the team] to really get to grips with these issues.’

Jude Harris, associate director at Jestico + Whiles, added: ‘I’m nervous about any presumption to standardise systems… Design has not been mentioned at all.’

Howarth’s comments came as pressure increased on education secretary Michael Gove, who was forced to apologise after a number of schools were wrongly told they were being saved from the BSF scrapheap.

Speculation is also rife that Gove has scrapped minimum design standards for future schools generally, but the Department for Education was unable to comment on this.

Responding to Howarth’s fears, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: ‘The review team will look at these issues in detail. Their terms of reference are clear that ministers want to look at making the design and procurement process simpler.

‘Ministers are clear that… every capital project needs to get the best value-for-money – which BSF was not achieving.’

Gove’s BSF review team

(Chair) Sebastian James, Group Operations Director of DSG international

Kevin Grace, Tesco - Director of Property Services

Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham

John Hood former Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford

Sir John Egan, former Chief Executive of Jaguar and BAA

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment 44A, and I thank my noble friend Lady Whitaker for once again tabling the issue of the design of school buildings on Report. To take care to design school buildings well is a mark of respect for school communities. It is also plain common sense, not only because of its effects on the morale of the school community but because of its benefits for practical functioning and, very importantly, for the benefit of disabled children in schools. Inclusive design that enables disabled children to be fully integrated into the whole life of the school community is design that is good for everybody. This is not simply a matter of aesthetics but of fitness for purpose.

By no means all the schools that have been built under the Building Schools for the Future programme have been exemplars of good architecture and good design, but a number of them have been very good indeed. One of the virtues of this programme has been that it has encouraged some of our leading architects in this country, who are of course leading architects in the world, to return to school-building in their practices.

If they are retained, minimum design standards will do much to ensure that the schools that are built in the future are built to good design standards. We did not get a clear answer in Committee-I make no criticism whatever of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who was unable to clarify the point-as to whether the Government intend to retain minimum design standards. I hope that they will be able to give us that assurance this evening.

I have to say that I draw no encouragement from the Secretary of State’s Statement on education funding on Monday after we finished Committee. In the course of that long statement on school buildings, the only references he made to design were disparaging. He picked out care to ensure good design as an instance of what he regarded as undue bureaucracy, cost and delay. He cited as instances of wasteful process that,

“local authorities involved in this process have employed … an enabler from CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment-another non-departmental public body”.-[Official Report, 5/7/10; col. 40.]

It is a great pity to dismiss CABE. The enablers that CABE has ensured have been available to assist people who face the difficult and complex responsibility of commissioning and securing good new school buildings. CABE enablers are design professionals who generously and public-spiritedly are willing to give their services for modest fees, well below market rates, to enable people facing these challenging, difficult and important tasks to know better how to handle them.

A moment later the Secretary of State said that,

“local authorities were expected to engage a design champion”,-[Official Report, 5/7/10; col. 41.]

Design champions exist in some local authorities, although they are not compelled to have them. These are people who are already there, whether as elected members or as senior officers, whose role in the local authority is to advocate good design. Given the enormous power that local authorities have over the built environment for good or for ill, through planning and through the procurement of buildings, it must be a good thing that they appoint someone from within their midst to prompt and remind them all the time of their responsibility to ensure that the buildings that are built under their auspices are well designed. I suspect that the Secretary of State had not understood what these functions were when he ridiculed them.

Later in the Statement, the Secretary of State went on to announce that he was going to appoint a “capital review team”. Among the people he named as members of that team is Sir John Egan. Sir John is, of course, deeply versed in the issues of building design and quality, and will be a most excellent member of that team. I am more concerned to see that the group operations director of Dixons Store Group and the director of property services at Tesco are included in the group. I know nothing of these individuals. They may be the most enlightened people, but I do not think that the most ardent admirers of Dixons and Tesco-and they have many good qualities-would claim that they have been patrons of fine architecture: rather the reverse. The banality and triteness of the design of modern supermarkets is a sad and indeed disgraceful falling away from the best of our historic traditions in the design of department stores and shop fronts.

The Secretary of State says that he wants buildings to be built more quickly and to look at the scope for savings. The reality is that a little time taken to achieve good design is an investment that richly pays for itself  in reduced lifetime costs of the building, in the better performance of all those who work in it, and in the quality of life for years ahead of the people in the community immediately around it. The Secretary of State is a civilised man with a sense of history, and so of course is the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Hill. I hope that they will think more deeply about their responsibilities in this area.

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