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The Farrell Review is more than the government deserved

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The Farrell Review doesn’t address the elephant in the room, says Paul Finch

First things first: Terry Farrell’s review of architecture and its context in current British life is an impressive document, well illustrated, which addresses most of the many issues that shape our current environment and the professionals who produce it. The full document, not just the exec summary or conclusions, should be compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in this subject.

In which case, why did I feel so depressed at the launch meeting earlier this week, at which Farrell spoke eloquently and which was introduced by the architecture minister Ed Vaizey, with great enthusiasm? First because the elephant in the room was not addressed. Had Ed Vaizey been architecture minister at the time of the 2010 public spending review, CABE would not have been scrapped, just cut in size. The train wreck consequence of Jeremy Hunt’s absurd decision, supported by the gutless then-architecture minister John Penrose (sunk without trace), are with us to this day. It is fair to say that much of the Farrell Review and its recommendations read straight out of CABE’s various manuals and policies.

Second, the politics now informing public life, with a year to go before a general election, means no hostage to fortune can be given by, or expected from, Westminster.

Here is a report with 60 recommendations, many of which are specifically targeted at government itself. Yet the minister invites a supply-side audience, who had all given evidence to the review team and were pleased to see much of it fed back in the document, to lobby him about what interests them. What precisely is he going to do about it, given that many of the recommendations are on subjects about which lobbying has been going on for years? One simple example is the proposal to cut VAT on retrofit and conservation projects, thereby encouraging long-life, low-energy environments. This has been the subject of lobbying for 30 years with zero effect. We can all give it another go, but it sounds like a lost cause before we even start.

In some ways the strongest (though scarcely original) theme in the review is the need to switch from reactive to proactive planning. This is exactly what the economically-sized National Planning Policy Framework tries to do, and the requirement for local plans and special guidance for local areas of particular interest sets out a proactive context within which development can occur.

Will housebuilders and developers take pause to consider the effect they are having on ‘PLACE’, as the review would have us think about this abstract, capitalised subject? Not a chance, unless forced into it by tough planning authorities. It is all very well the review asking for more resources for better planning professionals, but will it cut any mustard at 11 Downing Street? One great – and cheap – recommendation, that ARB’s role be transferred to the RIBA, has already been undermined by the institute’s dozy decision to support the Board’s continuation.

Many worthy ideas, propositions from sensible people who are seriously interested in creating better environments, are published and supported in a limbo of diminished resources, the triumph of the design-ignorant project manager, and uncertainty about whether this government still believes in localism. As for ‘PLACE’, the only real objection I have to the review’s recommendations is the suggestion that ‘PLACE reviews’ replace ‘design reviews’. Removing the word ‘design’ is wrong, as it is the lack of design, in its multi-faceted aspects, that creates rotten places. And no self-respecting design review panel ignores place-making.

My apologies for being such a wet blanket – and I still recommend you read the review in full.

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