The Cabinet Office is set to approve plans to merge CABE with the Design Council later this week
Just four months after CABE’s funding was controversially pulled, it is understood that the government is now poised to sanction a ‘phoenix plan’ for the organisation which will see it share resources and premises with the Design Council.
The news comes as Richard Rogers issued an impassioned plea to the government for its survival, claiming the loss of CABE would jeopardise the UK’s ‘urban renaissance’.
In a letter to The Times, he wrote: ‘If [CABE] goes to the wall, we may not see the impact this year or next. But over time the urban fabric of our towns and cities will deteriorate, the quality of life that they offer will be diminished, and we will realise what we have lost.
‘The government’s localist desire to devolve responsibility to local authorities is admirable, but few councils have the skills in-house to push for architectural quality, least of all in times of spending cuts and least of all in those parts of our cities most in need of high quality urban-regeneration.’
Rogers’ letter to The Times, full text
As the buildings and public spaces that form our cities change, they have a profound impact on our quality of life. From Florence, where I was born, to London, where I have lived for most of my life, to great cities like Barcelona, New York and Sydney, it is the quality of buildings and spaces that create beauty, that capture the hearts of people, that enable civic life. This interplay between people and places is what made me want to become an architect, and what continues to excite me today.
While London is probably the city I love best, for many years our capital’s urban environment was miserable. 15 years ago Jan Gehl, the Danish doyen of public space, found that London had the worst ‘spaces for people’ in Western Europe. Over the past ten years, however, a subtle change has crept over London and other British cities. We have begun to benefit from the standards of architecture and urban design that we once envied in continental neighbours.
Our cities are still blighted by some truly poor buildings and public spaces – London is shamed by the sterile towers and Noddy houses that litter the banks of the River Thames – but we have also seen some real improvements in recent years. In London, once impenetrable Bankside has become a great urban walk, from the Royal Festival Hall to the Globe and the Tate Modern, past the beautiful Millennium Bridge, and continuing to the nearly-completed Shard of Glass at London Bridge, and on to Tower Bridge and Butler’s Wharf.
Other cities have rediscovered the beauty that makes cities work, from the shopping arcades of Leeds, to Nottingham’s Lace Market, to Brindleyplace in Birmingham and Exchange Square in Manchester. These new and revitalised public spaces have brought life back to our inner cities, and begun a gradual transformation of the public realm.
However, the Government’s plans to stop funding the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) jeopardise this fledgling urban renaissance. CABE’s establishment had its origins in the work of the Government’s Urban Task Force, which I chaired from 1998-99. My Reith Lectures, Cities for a Small Planet, had addressed how urban development could be environmentally sustainable; the Urban Task Force gave me the opportunity to apply these principles to public policy, as did my role as Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism to Ken Livingstone, ex-Mayor of London.
The Task Force’s report stressed the importance of high quality design – of both public spaces and buildings – to attracting people back to our cities, and to engendering civic pride, vitality and security in places that had become grey, mediocre and overrun by cars. The local authorities and community representatives who we spoke to and visited could see the difference that design could make to reviving their inner cities, but could not easily call upon the skills to make high standards stick.
CABE was set up to plug that skills gap, to help local authorities and other public agencies to bring beauty to the urban environment. Its ‘design review’ process brought design-led critique into the planning process, its ‘enabling’ service provided architectural advisors to work alongside public sector clients, and its campaigning activity demonstrated the value that good architecture and good public space could bring to everything from housing, to healthcare, to education. CABE has helped to celebrate and create good design, and has stopped many bad designs.
As a practising architect, I have sometimes found the design review process tough when it has been applied to my own firm’s buildings, but it has generally resulted in better designs. And the process should not be too comfortable: CABE supports the cause of architecture in general, not the interests of architects as a profession, still less the prescriptions of particular schools of architecture and urbanism. CABE’s recommendations are not about style, or the imposition of a single aesthetic approach. They result from the independent and expert application of commonly accepted standards, so that buildings of all designs contribute positively to the urban fabric.
Over ten years, CABE has built up considerable expertise in making places that work for people; it is hard to see how this expertise will be preserved if the organisation is wound up. The Government’s localist desire to devolve responsibility to local authorities is admirable, but very few councils have the skills in house to push for architectural quality, least of all in times of spending cuts and least of all in those parts of our cities most in need of high quality urban regeneration.
In London, for example, it is the richest boroughs, with the most vigorous property markets, which have the skills to demand the highest standards. Poorer local authorities, whose built environments desperately need upgrading, will no longer be able to draw on the support of CABE (or Design for London, which I established with Ken Livingstone and which is now also under threat) when they are negotiating with developers.
The improvements that better buildings and spaces make to our towns and cities take time to be realised, especially given the glacially slow pace at which many urban projects proceed. Recent surveys have found that more than fifty per cent of new housing is badly designed, so there is still a huge distance to cover before even our homes – the buildings with which we have the closest relationship – reach acceptable standards. But that is no reason to abandon one of the few safeguards against further decline. Currently, there are plans to merge CABE with the Design Council which would be of benefit to both parties as well as to the Government in terms of economies of scale and breadth of advice. If CABE goes to the wall, we may not see the impact this year or next year. But over time, the urban fabric of our towns and cities will deteriorate, the quality of life that they offer will be diminished, and we will realise what we have lost.