Former environment secretary John Gummer has delivered a stinging attack on the growing problem of 'signitis' afflicting the UK, and has called for highways authorities to be stripped of their overarching powers to ruin environments.
Gummer, whom RIBA president David Rock said he wished was still involved in formulating policy, told the 150 architects, planners, engineers and students at the first Urban Design Conference that towns and cities in the UK were falling into the trap of contracting 'signitis'. Even well-designed notices were badly sited and 'burgeoning'.
He said he had been told by one council defending its positioning decisions that one design had been approved by the fine arts committees. 'But nobody had thought about where it fits with the context, ' said Gummer. 'In the context of urban design, a sense of place is absolutely essential. What really matters is where they go and how they fit.'
Gummer extended the argument for his view of context to buildings contributing to urban design, calling for 'sympathy and consideration and courtesy', a 'neighbourliness' and sense of history without resorting to pastiche. One nineteenth century castle he had visited in 'Burgundy country' recently had been turned into a secondary school and extended, but by someone 'clearly disabled - no idea of design'. The school of urban design had to get over the fact that 'you can easily destroy . . . every place is different from every other place.'
Part of the malaise was down to the transport planners. 'We need to get the highway authorities out of urban planning, ' he said in light of accepted wisdom that major new roads are largely unnecessary. 'We have to stop their stranglehold on how you build new bits of the town.'
Gummer said the best way of dealing with traffic was not to improve it. Another problem was that design decisions were being taken at too junior a level by council officials armed with standard manuals. He has conducted research on the matter. Education on all issues affecting urban design needed its standards raised. The British had made 'almost a fetish of making light of design, stigmatising the visual arts in education as being a subject for people who are not able to do anything else'.
'If people leave school never having looked above shop fronts, or walked around a city with someone to open their eyes or with the residual belief that art is only for the arty, then we will never change, ' he said.