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take courage

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Planning minister Tony McNulty is striving to put quality design at the centre of the Government's procurement and housing policy, and he has a simple message for the design community: we need you to back what we're doing

Tony McNulty has a message for architects.

'Live a little dangerously, ' he says. 'Be creative we couldn't do it without you'.

The 'it' he's talking about is getting design 'central' to everything the Government does.

While that plea for courage may give solace, and might well be worth citing to councillors' planning committee meetings, it's also similar to what Tory environment secretary John Gummer once said, faced with the same question many moons ago.

But that's really where the similarity between these two politicians ends.

London-born McNulty is the parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, a post he's held since last May. His job is to support Lord Rooker on housing, planning and urban policy, along with work for the planning inspectorate and 'support' for the Dome proposals. He's also Minister for London - Nick Raynsford's old job - but he refuses to talk about a possible Olympics bid, branding it 'temporarily sidelined because of the international situation'.

What he is keen to push is the Government's just-launched Communities Plan. 'It's more than simply a housing action plan', he says. 'It's about how to take forward what we mean by sustainable communities.'

So, how does he communicate the central message of the document? 'We do it through giving people a sense of ownership about what it means for their local areas and their local regions to get people to own the vision, the principles and everything else at that local level.'

Much of that will mean working 'very, very closely' with local government. And with bodies like English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. 'And very, very seriously with all the professions, ' he adds.

Which is where the new, improved, braver architects come in. 'Property developers, architects, planners, we need them all on board, and we need them signed up to what we're trying to do. That's a very serious point. It's not flannel. It's about getting that evangelical, exhortational message out.'

We meet in McNulty's recently refurbished offices off Whitehall in an adjunct building to Admiralty Arch. But for all the good words McNulty has for design, he doesn't know who the architects were that refurbished his own building. An aide runs off to find out. It is HOK International.

What about the product churned out by the volume housebuilders? Is he happy with that? 'By and large through talking to people, whether it's the House Builders Federation or planners or every step in between, people are signed up to the notion that a community that is sustainable is one where good design, high quality, a concern about public space and all that, are not fripperies or add-ons any more but are crucial to adding value to a particular housing development or a particular community.'

McNulty is happy that the message about good design is being communicated at the grass roots, successfully in his eyes, by CABE. Its chief executive, Jon Rouse, well known in these circles, has been persistent and successful in winning funding for its new CABE Space programme, another shift in design up the corridors of power.

But there has been criticism of the Design Champions. Why do they meet so infrequently? Is it not just a talking shop? 'I would say that if people are expressing that kind of degree of cynicism, number one they need to feel the fruits of the results of what the team does in the next wave of public procurement, number two look at the communities plan and more importantly how it rolls out and, thirdly, engage with the Design Champions with each department and see what they've been doing.'

On PFI, his attitude is that without it the wave of new public buildings would not have happened. But he is keen to see design better integrated through CABE's work again and the Better Public Buildings programme. 'It's part of that process of leading by example, isn't it?'.

With 40 per cent of all we build being publicly funded, 'good design, high quality, durability and lifelong notions of building' must be adhered to. But with hospitals he feels the problem is accurately predicting changes in medicine over the next 40 years.

McNulty was for 11 years a councillor in Harrow, serving on his fair share of planning committees. He feels that this experience got him closer to the process. 'At its most basic, no one has to tell me what a PPG or an RPG is or [about] the lexicon that is the planning domain. But it also means that I start from the perspective of understanding how powerful planning is as a device and how important the building, architectural and planning professions are to the communities and the environments we live in.'

He learnt that 'all developers don't have fangs and horns; that planning plays a very important role, that architects are, above everything else, pragmatic and respond to the context within which they're operating.'

But he hates the 'quite appalling, unwelcoming' Harrow Civic Centre where he spent much of his time. Far better were the proposals for the town halls of the future, a competition run by the IPPR and the AJ. It was 'an excellent contest' and one he now 'sponsors'.

Buildings he admires? 'Whatever I say is going to sound cliched, ' he says, before mentioning the Baltic, the 'blinking' bridge and housing around it. The Eden Project and the Earth Centre in Doncaster are others he feels work well. And the Dome, whatever we might think of its problems, is also a 'quite spectacular' building, though McNulty assures that government is not worried about financial problems surrounding Anshutz, its new developers.

There is more: the Moscow metro, the 'sweep of the elevators' up Canary Wharf, the Greenwich Millennium Village and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His own home is a semi-detached 'which works in the context of Harrow'.

But McNulty wants one thing from the design community: quality. 'I'm not saying there should be Poundsbury's (sic) everywhere, Hemingway's thing in Newcastle everywhere, or Greenwich Millennium Villages everywhere, ' he says. 'It's about fit for purpose, but within those contexts, I'd say live a little dangerously. Be creative.'

Don't doubt him. 'We are deadly serious about design and high quality and if there's any cynicism, come and test us on it. The mood music and the right words are backed up by resources and the political leadership that says 'design is central to all that we do.''

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