A few of our most eminent architects had lunch recently with the country’s most senior politician, to discuss the nation’s need for great architecture and design. Unfortunately, the politician in question was French president Nicolas Sarkozy, not prime minister Gordon Brown.
Good-quality contemporary architecture has yet to take centre stage in the UK. We need to permeate good design practice down to as many local communities as possible. How one goes about achieving this is a difficult question to answer, although the recent report by the Conservatives’ Quality of Life group did put this issue centre stage.
I’m a strong supporter of CABE, which recently took me round a development in my own constituency in Wantage, Oxfordshire. This was a development which they regarded as the classic curate’s egg – good in parts, bad in others. I saw exactly what they meant. A promising and careful start gradually petered out as the development physically progressed, until you came across French doors opening directly on to footpaths and the like. Now the development is a magnet for anti-social behaviour, because the developer plonked a play area in the furthest corner (they had to build a play area, but did not think about where to site it) and designed the development so it can be used as a cut through.
All this is intensely, intensely depressing. But I think we can look on the issue with fresh eyes. Developers have no links with the communities in which they build. They go through a box-ticking consultation exercise, and are usually dealing with councils which simply do not have the resources to take them on. My own local council, Vale of White Horse District Council, has to supervise a development of 2,500 houses, other large developments, and a possible reservoir. As a small district council, it cannot cope. We need to find a way to incentivise developers to build quality designs – suggestions welcome. Perhaps CABE-approved developments could face a less onerous planning procedure, or
CABE approval could form part of Section 106? We also need to strengthen CABE’s resources and powers so that more developers are held to account for the quality of their design. I am delighted that I have persuaded one notoriously problematic developer to submit its designs to CABE for the first time. We need to look urgently at the planning laws, so that we can find a way to embed design into the planning process. And we need to strengthen local planning departments, both in terms of training and development. It would be good, for example, if smaller local councils could combine to fund posts that subjected large proposed developments to a design review.
It’s not as if communities don’t want good design. There is a terrible, patronising assumption among many people – and many developers – that ordinary people don’t understand good architecture. In fact, scratch the surface and most people want iconic buildings in their area, both for their identity and their pride. Look at Walsall, Middlesbrough, Gateshead. Didcot, in my own constituency, is often unfairly maligned as a ‘crap town’, but its population is getting an arts centre and looking at proposals for public art. We need to give local people a real say in how their landscape is built and designed if we are going to make a real impact.