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CABE works, so let's keep it strong

Quality is constantly overlooked on public projects – this is no time to ignore CABE, says Stuart Lipton

CABE took over the role of the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1999 and won huge support for its goal to put good architecture and good environments into communities.

Why did (and do) so many post-war schools, hospitals and public buildings need replacement? It’s not as though we lack a history of designing these well. It has nothing to do with central government planning controls, since 97.6 per cent of applications are settled locally. What has caused the problem is a lack of competent clients; the majority have had little opportunity to obtain independent advice on the built environment.

In a period of relative austerity, it would be little short of tragic if government was to throw away some of the benefits of CABE. It has influenced communities, local government and the private sector, resulting in changed strategies – from rent-slab office buildings, mouse-hole housing and undistinguished public buildings to alternatives based on a belief that a decent environment is part of what defines us as communities. This affects our behaviour, our attitude to society and lets us delight in our surroundings, all of which feed into an invigorated economy.

If the government is serious about making savings, it needs to look at what it builds. Crime, health, welfare and education budgets run into hundreds of billions of pounds; a saving of 10 per cent is more than possible if we divert built environment policies from disjointed incoherence to community-inspired initiatives, where the functions and benefits of a ‘village green’ approach produce an inclusive and responsible alternative.

Governments have had more than 20 years to tackle the housing problem, both in terms of supply and design quality. Despite billions of pounds of expenditure, public money has been spent unwisely. Too often, despite CABE’s warnings, space standards have reduced, architecture has been downplayed, and cost and innovation issues have been avoided. The Homes and Communities Agency, the Housing Corporation and numerous other bodies have ducked out of quality. Too often, and with honourable exceptions, it’s been about outputs rather than lasting benefits.

Despite technological advances, and with composite design and construction in virtually every industry, the built environment still depends on Roman-style construction. In a time of austerity, we need to focus on holistic design and building, with energy conservation and carbon-free buildings our main goal.

Against this background, ‘localism’ as a new method of settling planning applications has merits. But how will local people have the knowledge to deal with the technical, social and environmental issues? If government – with all its access to information – has failed in the past, how can we be sure people have the knowledge to succeed in the future? Of course communities should have the dominant say, but they will need CABE’s support, encouragement and motivation.

  • Stuart Lipton is a former chair of CABE

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