Prime minister Tony Blair's 'quality of life' speech delivered this week has split the architectural profession. The RIBA has voiced its disappointment over his announcements, calling it 'thin' and 'weak'. But the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment hailed Blair's words as a 'breakthrough'.
Speaking at Fairfield Hall in Croydon, Blair praised the work of US mayors Rudy Guiliani of New York and Chicago's Richard Daley.
'They have understood the small things that add up. They invoke the concept of liveability as a shorthand for all the things which improve our daily experience of life where we live, ' said Blair.
'One of the failings of Thatcherism was to misunderstand how 'public goods' such as safe, clean and attractive streets and spaces need investment.'
Although the prime minister announced £30 million of new investment in 'Home Zones' allowing local residents to add public art and traffic calming measures to their streets, he failed to address design issues as RIBA head of government relations Jonathan Labrey had hoped for.
'We welcome the speech but feel that it could have been far more ambitious. It's far too cautious, ' Labrey told the AJ. 'You can't talk about streets and urban renewal without mentioning the contribution that good design makes to it. It reads more like a lecture than a prime minister setting out the agenda for his next term.'
Labrey hoped Blair would address some of the issues the institute raised with ministers last month (AJ 5.4.01), especially the idea of establishing city architects in a small number of pilot towns and extending the 'design champion' initiative into local government.
This initiative commits junior ministers in departments such as health and education to include the concept of good architecture into public expenditure plans, but the RIBA was hopeful that the government would expand the scheme.
'This speech would have lent itself to announcing an extension of the design champions idea or city architects, ' said Labrey. 'He was talking about quality of life. That is an architecture thing and something that a city architect could at least advise on.'
But RIBA president-elect Paul Hyett said Blair was right to concentrate on non-design issues: 'Regeneration is about management, not just about design.'
CABE chief executive Jon Rouse was positive about the speech, although he had a hand in writing it when interested parties were invited into Number 10 to advise Blair. 'There's no need to be disillusioned, ' he said. 'When was the last time a prime minister gave a speech about local environmental quality? This is a breakthrough.'
Rouse is particularly excited about the announcement that the government will commit itself to introducing American-style 'business improvement districts'. These will encourage local businesses to club together and stump up the money for small-scale regeneration schemes.
'I think he was trying to empathize with what people care about and feel they have no control over, ' said Rouse. A big success in the US, Rouse accepts that this scheme may attract criticism because people believe these services ought to be provided by the local authority. 'These objections were raised [in the US] at first but they just got on with it, ' he said.