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Margaret Hodge: ‘It’s crucial that people have a say’

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Architecture minister Margaret Hodge answers your questions about the OJEU process, her stance on the listing of post-war buildings, and why the Piazza del Campo is her favourite space

Margaret Hodge

Margaret Hodge - the current architecture minister

How will you legally or technically be able to introduce ‘fitness for purpose’ as a criterion for listing without changes to primary legislation?
Jon Wright, the Twentieth Century Society

We are not proposing to change the current statutory listing criteria of special architectural or historic interest. However, in terms of how the statutory criteria are applied, we recognise that the current principles of selection for listing may not fully capture the consideration that needs to be given to more recent buildings, which have not yet stood the test of time.

What we are aiming to do is clarify the selection criteria required for buildings of recent construction. I believe there is a need to consider the extent to which they met their original brief in terms of functional and technical performance: were they fit for their purpose, and did the materials, design and workmanship allow them to function as intended? I do not accept that a housing development that repels visitors or frightens residents, or an office block that kills the spirits of those who work in it can ever be said to be fit for purpose.

The aim is to ensure that the special architectural or historic interest of more recent buildings is subject to an appropriate rigorous and informed assessment. We plan to include this clarification in the principles of selection for designation that my department and English Heritage intend to publish in the spring.

While I agree with your decision to retain listing control, how do you plan to engage and recognise the public’s voice in the retention of our nation’s favourite buildings and the removal of our most loathed?
Chris Johnson, managing principal, Gensler Europe, Middle East and Asia

We already, of course, have in place a robust process of consultation and consideration when it comes to planning and building issues. And quite rightly, it emphasises the importance of seeking local views in determining which buildings have local significance. That’s because we believe that in order to create a strong, cohesive community, it’s crucial that people have a big say in the future of existing and new developments. This is bolstered by our measures to actively promote good design, and making it an integral part of new developments. But I, for one, would need a heck of a lot of persuading to take this principle further and seek powers to allow an existing building in current use to be demolished simply because of
its poor design quality.

What’s your favourite building and why?
Shaun Travers, director, Boon Brown Architects

I’m going to cheat a little and say that my favourite space is the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, with its incomparable blend of breathtaking architecture and fishbone-patterned red-brick paving. At any time, but particularly when the late afternoon sun bathes the square and the buildings in gorgeous sunlight, the bustle and buzz make it a fantastic place to be. It’s undoubtedly one of Europe’s most amazing medieval squares, and proof once again that beauty and form are at their most enduring when the driving concept is rooted in simplicity and elegance.

Is the quest for better public buildings really being achieved by the current long-winded procurement methods for schools?
John Lyall, managing director, John Lyall Architects

I don’t think there is any doubt that the last 10 years have seen a huge step forward in the quality of public buildings. We are now seeing schools and health buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. We all get frustrated by the bureaucratic processes that come with new buildings financed through the public purse. Some of these processes are necessary because of public accountability for spending taxpayers’ money. But, of course I can empathise with the frustrations of architects as a result of OJEU processes like Competitive Dialogue. It’s important that we make sure we are doing everything we can to reduce that burden within the framework of European law, and I understand Partnerships for Schools and others are looking at that.

How will you ensure that the World Class Places strategy goes beyond good intentions to positive actions on improving the quality of our built environment?
Ruth Reed, president, RIBA

The government is committed to delivering the strategic objectives outlined in the World Class Places strategy. In November, we published the Action Plan, which laid out how we will deliver each of the objectives. We are also committed to reporting back in a year’s time on the progress we have made in implementing the Action Plan. Moreover, a number of these actions are well underway, such as developing the new Planning Policy Statement for the Historic Environment.

In the present climate, many clients are taking advantage of architects. How can public and client awareness of the value of architects and their work be enhanced?
Danielle Tinero, director, Tinero Architects

When budgets are tight, design can come under pressure, and when that happens we need to send clear signals to everyone about what is acceptable. That’s why, through the World Class Places strategy, we set out our ambition to establish and apply design thresholds to all public building programmes, and to develop an integrated set of standards for homes and neighbourhoods attracting public funding. We’ve made progress with the schools programme. We now need to make progress in other areas like housing and health.

How has your opinion of modern architecture been affected by run-down Council estates in Islington, where you were the Leader of the Council?
Rab Bennetts, founder of Bennetts Associates

I am immensely proud of the work I was able to do as chair of Housing in Islington in the 1970s. We stopped pulling down good housing and built the largest rehabilitation programme in the country – providing nearly 2000 homes each year through renovating and rehabilitation. We also developed a large programme of improvements for council estates built from the 1930s onwards, creating good quality, affordable council housing from run-down estates. These programmes have stood the test of time and estates which were written off in the 1970s have become and stayed desirable places where people want to live.

Good architecture is only worthwhile if the public realm in which it sits is regarded of equal value. In most cases this responsibility falls to the highways department of local authorities. Do you think of highways departments being headed by urban designers rather than transport engineers?’
Graham Morrison co-founder of Allies and Morrison

You are absolutely right to say that the spaces between buildings are as important as the buildings themselves. We have recognised this in ‘World Class Places’ by encouraging local authorities to set clear quality of place ambitions in their local planning. Getting this right is more about ensuring all professionals have the appropriate skills and mindsets, rather than replacing one set of people with another.
The Manual for Streets has been a huge step forward in getting Highways Departments to prioritise quality of place. CABE is currently working with them to embed this further and tools like “Building for Life” are encouraging Local Authorities and developers to consider how streets work with building layouts.  The ‘World Class Places’ strategy seeks to promote both of them.

Young people need to be provided with the tools and language to demand a well-designed built environment. This can only be assisted by integrating architecture into the school curriculum.  How will you ensure this?
Victoria Thornton, Founding Director of Open House

I entirely agree that young people need to be provided with the tools and language to demand a well-designed built environment.  What we really need is to get all young people thinking like designers.  The need to create sustainable communities has given this added urgency which young people respond to.  The key to this is trying to create a society where most people can understand how their town, neighbourhood and street works and contributes to quality of life; and then people need to articulate what they think about it.  It seems so elementary and simple but, as we all know, it’s a really tough nut to crack. 

Buildings and places are our biggest free teaching resource, and perhaps the only part of British culture we all experience every single day. But I see its potential not as a tick box addition to a list for stressed teachers.  Rather, it can help bring subjects alive – from Maths and History to Physics or Biology – and this is reflected in the new National Curriculum.

It’s also why we have asked CABE and English Heritage to create resources like Engaging Places (www.enagagingplaces.org.uk) to help and inspire teachers in accessing and using environment resources.  And the work CABE has done with involving children in the Building Schools for the Future programme is an excellent example of how to provide young people with the skills to be able to articulate their thoughts and demands.


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