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Architecture and the Conservative party

Architects tell the AJ what an elected Tory government would mean for the profession

It has not been a good week for Gordon Brown and the Labour party. According to reports, the party lost 1.5 million voters in last week’s disastrous local and European elections.

The return of a Conservative government by next summer – the deadline for a general election – is ever more likely.

The RIBA is already considering a shift in power. On Tuesday (9 June) the institute met with a host of shadow ministers, including culture minister Ed Vaizey, housing minister Grant Shapps and policy review chairman Oliver Letwin, in ‘a cross-departmental Conservative summit on architecture’.

What emerged was a need for ‘wholesale change’ in the planning process. But details of exactly how that would be achieved were not clear.

In fact, besides housing and local government papers, David Cameron’s Conservative party has been ‘keeping its powder dry’ about its exact thoughts on the built environment. As one disgruntled architect points out, the word ‘architecture’ does not get a single mention on any of the Tories’ webpages.

Rupert Wheeler, partner at London-based practice Mackenzie Wheeler, says: ‘The Conservatives have been remarkably silent on a lot of things… When you try and think of any ideas that you could lend your support to, it is very difficult’.

One certainty is that, whichever party gets in, there will have to be large cuts in public spending.

In its report ‘Back to Black’, right-leaning think tank Reform recently called for the streamlining of the ‘big spending’ and ‘wasteful’ Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), with its £2.3 billion budget for 2010-11, as well as the new Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

Robert Evans of Evans Vettori Architects, is concerned that a Tory government could ‘cut public spending at the worst possible time’.

He says: ‘BSF represents a critical source of work for many architects – Nottingham special schools currently account for nearly half of our workload – and has allowed us to grow.

‘It is imperative that the programme continues, along with other publicly funded initiatives, to maintain some continuity and help practices to survive until the private sector recovers.’

Jonathan Hines, director of Architype, goes further, describing the prospect of a Conservative government as a potential ‘disaster for the architectural profession’.

Hines says: ‘We should not forget that under the Conservatives we had crumbling schools that did not even have enough money for basic books, little or no value placed on good design, and architects chosen solely on lowest price fees.

‘Under Labour, schools are being transformed, with every single one on course for complete renovation or rebuilding… Let’s not forget that in the depth of the worst global recession ever, it is Labour’s investment that is keeping the profession afloat.’

While some, like ARB Reform Group spokesperson George Oldham, have welcomed the Tories’ commitment to the money-saving and bureaucracy-killing ‘bonfire of the quangos’, others fear for the future of bodies such as design watchdog CABE.

Faheem Aftab, of Manchester-based A-cube Architects says: ‘The Conservatives, in their own words, “will use incentives to encourage new homes to be built, rather than letting unelected quangos impose unsustainable development on communities”.

‘I can see this leading to the eventual destruction of CABE, with priority being given over to independent local lobby groups in the form of local housing trusts.’

Yet Vaizey refutes any suggestions that he would scrap the commission. He tells the AJ: ‘The Conservatives believe that good design is integral to the functioning of happy and sustainable communities.

‘We are big fans of CABE, and would like there to be a discussion about the respective roles of it and the new HCA to ensure clarity and efficient spending of public money,’ adds Vaizey.

‘We would like to see improved design standards, and all significant new government-funded building programmes, including housing, schools, health centres and prisons, to have the opportunity to be advised or reviewed by a team of design experts from CABE.’

CABE’s director of campaigns and education, Matt Bell, is unconcerned. ‘During tough economic times, we also need decent places as a safeguard against social breakdown,’ he says.

‘The built environment is the platform on which most of the policy objectives of any administration are delivered, and it has both an intrinsic and an instrumental value to governments of every hue.’

Ultimately, decisions on the future of organisations such as CABE could be solely economic.

One cast-iron policy, which will undeniably affect the profession, is the Tory drive for localism, with the proposed abolition of Regional Development Agencies, the regional planning system and eco-towns.

James Gallie, an associate at van Heyningen and Haward, is worried this could impact on the sustainability agenda. He says: ‘Sustainability depends on joined-up thinking and this will entirely disappear. It’s practically written into the Tory manifesto – for “less central government” read “less coordination”.’

The fate of the ARB is equally bleak, with the shadow cabinet purportedly keen to abolish the board. What may save the ARB is the alternative – self-regulation. Given the recent MPs’ expenses furore, would any government trust architects to do that?

Emerging Conservative party policies

  • Public spending cuts: potential targets include CABE, the Building Schools for the Future programme, the Homes and Communities Agency, and English Heritage
  • Regional Development Agencies stripped of responsibilities for planning, housing and spatial strategy. The Government Office for London will be abolished
  • Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) replaced with faster planning inquiries
  • Regional planning system, housebuilding targets and regional spatial strategies scrapped. Local authorities to revise their Local Development Frameworks in line with the changes
  • Introduction of new local housing trusts, created by local residents, with the power to plan housing, influence design, canvas local support and submit proposals to the local authority
  • New mandatory pre-application consultations between developers and residents for all developments above an undefined size
  • A review of levies on development such as Section 106 and the government’s proposed Infrastructure Development Levy
  • Energy-efficient retrofits of homes, with homeowners entitled to grants of up to £6,500. Costs to be paid back automatically through energy bills over 25 years
  • Employers, subject to mandatory carbon reductions under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, allowed to count carbon emission reductions in employees’ homes towards their own targets
  • Statutory powers for local authorities to set renewable and low-carbon energy targets for new developments
  • Review and possible abolition of the ARB

Readers' comments (1)

  • The abolition of self-appointed and unaccountable quango's such as local RDA's is long overdue.

    However we should consider what the Tories did back in the 80's and 90's. The entire period is marked by a prolongued period of disinvestment particularly in social housing. If you think about what was built locally during these periods, I struggle to think of little other than law courts.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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