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Architecture: Blair's new baby

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Prime minister Tony Blair is to take advantage of what the Cabinet Office described as his 'personal interest in the area' by endorsing design quality 'as a key component of value for money'.The prime minister's project will figure as the next stage of work for a new, high-profile ministerial group which last week set out a four-point plan aimed at forcing government departments - and eventually local authorities - to act as exemplary clients.

Blair is considering chairing a seminar this autumn for government and the construction industry to promote the value of good design in public building programmes.

The Ministerial Group on Public Sector Buildings is chaired by Blair's friend, Cabinet minister and Dome oveseer Lord Falconer. It also includes DETR minister Nick Raynsford, DCMS minister Alan Howarth, CABE's Stuart Lipton and other government representatives.And it met at the Cabinet Office on 11 May to take forward recommendations of two reports on public buildings prepared for Blair earlier this year. One was from the H M Treasury and the other from Lipton, Howarth and Falconer (AJ 28.10.1998), and both are concerned with government's annual £24 billion spending on buildings - 40 per cent of construction spending.

After the meeting, Lord Falconer attempted to kill for good the 'myth' that lowest cost equals good value, saying that best value was 'achieved by good design and investment in quality' and that it depended on a well-considered brief.

'It is then created by skilled design, fine craftsmanship and good management, ' he said. 'Design and construction are not different worlds, but should be part of the same integrated team effort.'

As part of the action plan, Falconer said he would ask each government department to give examples of current and planned public building projects, after which CABEwill highlight some as demonstration schemes and possibly set up an annual award for the best of them.

Departments - in practice this will mean around 8 to 10 of the key ones (such as the Home Office, the DETR, the Foreign Office) will also be asked to name a senior minister as 'Design Champion', 'so the quality message is promoted from the top'. There will also be better training of 'clients' within departments, along with the seminar Blair may chair.

RIBA president Marco Goldschmied greeted the moves 'toward the long-term future of the country' as 'a welcome change'.'Recognition of the vital role of the informed client and patron in the process of architecture is also overdue, 'he said. 'The RIBA will be offering all the resources at its disposal and it is vital that architects are central to this whole process. But ministers must stop confusing the generic term design with the specific term architecture.'Goldschmied, just back from Australia, added that government could take a leaf out of that country's book, where each state has an official government architect to advise clients and monitor quality.

The whole quality initiative was kicked off in August 1998 when Blair sent a letter to the then chief secretary Alan Milburn asking for the two reports on the issue after a seminar at No. 10 run by his special advisor, Geoff Mulgan.

The new group is to meet again later this summer to rev iew progress and adopt more measures 'to ensure that government's own building programme becomes once again an example of excellence'. It will also set up a series of workshops later this year.

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