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Blair orders new breed of 'showcase' public buildings

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Prime minister Tony Blair has told all his main governmental departments he wants to see a series of 'showcase' public buildings in this country as a result of a personal crusade to lift quality in UK architecture. Blair's desire comes as part of a push to get government departments to speak the same language, procure more buildings which use Britain's plentiful array of architectural talent better and take advantage of the creation of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in raising standards.

CABE chief Stuart Lipton is set to meet culture minister Alan Howarth and Dome minister Lord Falconer this week to discuss progress on one of two reports which the PMhas commissioned with the aim of achieving his objectives.

Last August Blair sent a letter to the then chief secretary Alan Milburn following a seminar on the issue run by his special advisor Geoff Mulgan at Number 10, in which he asked for two key reports on the subject of raising public building standards and government support by this Christmas. The seminar included officials from departments including the DETR, DFEE, DCMS, Cabinet Office and Treasury as well as from the Urban Task Force and CABE, and the letter detailing the importance of the reports was similarly widely distributed across government departments.

The PM is said to be concerned that quality design does not figure as highly as it should with regard to public buildings such as hospitals and schools, and sees the creation of CABE under Lipton as an ideal opportunity to rectify the situation. This injection of support is sure to be welcomed by the profession, since annual governmental expenditure on buildings is £23 billion - 40 per cent of the country's construction spending.

One of the reports was to be from the then chief secretary to the Treasury Alan Milburn outlining efforts to improve the design quality of buildings with particular regard to best practice across government.The new chief secretary charged with the duty is Andrew Smith.

The other is to come from Lipton, Howarth and Falconer.This latter report has an oddly worded remit - it is understood to be to 'think of ways government should make better use of architects and designers of existing and new buildings.'The PM particularly wants to develop landmark buildings for the main public services and get architects more involved in a national programme of smaller buildings such as hundreds of Surestart centres.

Blair may even personally chair a seminar with senior ministers and experts selected from outside government to look at ways forward and ensure that the initiative is on track.

Whatever comes of them, the reports and Blair's mission for showcase public buildings are evidence of a fresh governmental objective to put architecture higher up the agenda and to revitalise the construction industry - especially when viewed along with the Egan report, various Treasury initiatives and in the run up to the publication of the Urban White Paper.

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