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Government relations at their ‘lowest ebb’

In the wake of recent attacks by education secretary Michael Gove, the profession is struggling to pin down how the government really views design

According to RIBA president Jack Pringle, relations between the profession and the government have now sunk to their ‘lowest ebb in a generation’.

In recent weeks the role of architects has come under repeat and unprovoked attack by education secretary Michael Gove, launched against a background of the loss of CABE’s funding, tuition fee hikes and the shelving of high-profile architect-designed projects.

Last month, Gove declared that ‘award-winning’ architects were unwanted on government-backed free schools schemes because parents – he claimed – lacked the desire to make them ‘richer’. The education secretary had twice already claimed that architects were profiteering from the now-scrapped school building programme.

Describing the education secretary’s criticism as ‘Britain’s version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,’ former RIBA president Jack Pringle warned of an ‘anti-architect, anti-design axis’ in government. (Read full comment below).

Described by Joe Morris of Duggan Morris as ‘one of the most bizarre sequences of minister mishandling’, Gove’s rant came just days before the RIBA-sponsored cross party panel on planning and architecture last week. The institute achieved a public assurance from Conservative MP – and permanent private secretary to decentralisation minister Greg Clarke – John Howell that the coalition would ‘promote the highest standards of architecture and design.’

Yet a source close to Whitehall claims the government is still without ‘a single party line on architecture’.

Aides to Jeremy Hunt, claims the source, have allegedly told senior civil servants that the culture minister was ‘not interested in architecture’.

The source said: ‘Unlike the last government, this one isn’t practising “joined up government”, each department [has to] compete for kudos and cash as a separate entity.’

The source continued: ‘Labour and the Conservatives’ manifestos both pledged a commitment to good quality design, but the LibDems failed to make a similar promise and the issue is omitted from the coalition agreement on which current government is based – hence architecture’s now precarious position.’

Hank Dittmar, chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation, believes architects in politicians’ eyes have dug their graves by allowing architecture to be redefined as high art rather than building craft. ‘Policy-makers are bound to see high art, especially when accompanied by obscure rhetoric, as dispensable in an age of budget cutting,’ he said.

He added: ‘For the 13 years of the last government, architects were promoted as the harbingers of Cool Britannia and the “wow” factor was sought for buildings from London to West Bromwich. [But as] the operating costs of expensive buildings becomes known and it is understood that statement buildings don’t cause regeneration, the “bow wow” factor will come to the fore.’

 

Comment

Jack Pringle, RIBA past-president

Jack Pringle

Jack Pringle

 

The government has decided Britain can’t afford good architecture any more.

On schools there is an anti- architect, anti-design axis developed between Toby Young and Michael Gove. They think the excesses of BSF were all architects’ fault and ignore the grossly inefficient procurement system developed by Partnerships for Schools (PFS) which was responsible for wasting millions and encouraging an arms race for higher cost sample schools. 

Now the same PFS, having washed its hands of BSF in an act of extreme political adroitness, is running Gove’s free schools and flat-pack new schools to Tesco and Dixons tune. Both models desperately need the skills of architects to succeed, but the profession has been scapegoated and is out in the cold. It’s like the UK’s version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution when the professors were sent to the fields.

The decimation of CABE and its merger with the Design Council is evidence that the government does not value architecture at a systemic level and underlines the belief in the UK that architecture cannot be looked after by architects.

This is the lowest ebb the profession has reached with government in a generation.

 

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