With the success of the AJ's PPG 7 campaign, key supporter Alan Howarth MP discusses his affinity for architecture and hopes for the future
Alan Howarth MP is feeling pretty pleased with himself - as he should be. Together with the AJ he has succeeded in changing government policy on the country house exception - a significant achievement in anyone's book.
'This is a great day and a great achievement, ' he says, very happily. 'I really am very pleased that we have persuaded the government to change its mind.' Howarth is an interesting political character. There are, after all, not many MPs who can claim to have crossed over from the Tory to the Labour benches. While some have called him a splitter, he comes across as an honourable and principled politician who will stand up for what he believes in.
Joining the New Labour government in 1997 as an employment minister, Howarth soon found himself in what he describes as his 'dream job': minister for the arts in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
This former position added great credibility when he joined the AJ's Save the Clause campaign late last year. And when the member for Newport East also agreed to sponsor the Early Day Motion, calling on the government to rethink its policy, the gravitas he brought and his influence in the corridors of power forced people at the ODPM to sit up and take note.
Howarth is not an architect and neither does he have any formal background in either architecture or design. Although there is an element of truth to the public perception of backbench MPs as time-servers who spend most of their time either jetting around the world or taking advantage of Westminster's sensational facilities, it is also a lesser-known fact that many take on causes simply because they believe it is the right thing to do.
But not only does this 60-year-old MP believe that defending the PPG 7 exception was 'the right thing to do'; he also seems to have a more than average interest in all things architectural. How did this come about?
'I was fortunate enough to be taken to Florence when I was about 12 in 1957, ' he says, clearly slightly embarrassed by what must have been a pretty privileged upbringing. 'And it was the first time I really became aware of architecture and how important it can be.
'I was also brought up in Winchester and went to King's College, Cambridge, and these are obviously very interesting from an architectural perspective.' However, it seems that the most significant element of Howarth's architectural education came during the 1970s, after he had embarked on a teaching career.
'I used to take some of the children off on a Friday afternoon to look at many of London's great buildings. I remember those days extremely fondly, ' he says. Not exactly an essential element of a caricature of your average '70s teacher.
'I would use Nairn's London [by Ian Nairn] as my guide. It was brilliant as it allowed me to go completely off the beaten track and find hidden gems. It also taught me to look above street level, which is obviously essential.' One wonders how many of the capital's teaching population would be allowed this freedom to take their pupils on a voyage of discovery in the over-regulated 'noughties'.
Howarth continued this passion for design standards in construction when he joined the DCMS. 'We were able to create CABE and the Better Public Buildings (BPB) initiative and bring it right to the top of the government's agenda. For example, when we launched the BPB, the prime minister himself wrote a really impressive forward, ' he says, with good reason for sounding proud.
'We had a lot of influence at that time. I asked my civil servants to find out just how much we were spending on construction at the time and work out what we were doing to improve design in this massive programme.
'We also launched the Design Champion Initiative, which was an attempt to get all the different government departments to take responsibility for standards of design in their construction programmes.' Although no longer in the government - he left in the 2001 reshuffle due to 'all the young guns waiting for promotion' - Howarth seems more enthused than ever with looking out for design standards in Whitehall.
'We have to keep a watching brief on the design champions in the different departments. While some have been really great, such as Charlie Faulkner in the Lord Chancellor's department, there have been others that have had less impact. We need to make sure some of the ministers keep their eyes on the ball because they have lapsed a bit.' Which all fits in very neatly with why he took on the challenge of defending 'Gummer's Law'. This is not to say, however, that Howarth does not have his reservations about planning minister Keith Hill's phraseology in PPS 7's new exception clause.
'The text looks encouraging, ' he says. 'But we will still have to be vigilant. It is extremely important that the phrase 'innovative and ground-breaking' must also bring in traditional design methods. The government must not be too prescriptive about design.
'It is part of a liberal society that people should be allowed different architectural styles and tastes, ' he adds.