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The Thatcher years: architects reflect on the legacy of the Iron Lady

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Love her or loathe her, policies ushered in under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership radically changed the shape of Britain’s towns and cities writes Merlin Fulcher

Margaret Thatcher never showed much interest in the arts or architecture. But her 11 years as prime minister resulted in a radical transformation of the profession.

The former prime minister, who died on Monday, aged 87, oversaw wide-ranging policies of deregulation, privatisation and public asset sales which reshaped the country as a modern market economy. The biggest impact on the profession was the closure of the vast majority of public sector architect departments. In-house council teams had employed thousands of architects across the country.

Veteran architect Sam Webb said: ‘She destroyed the finest public offices in the world, not least the Greater London Council.’ Alfred Munkenbeck of Munkenbeck + Partners agreed: ‘For ideological reasons she abolished the Greater London Council, which once employed thousands of architects. In the early 1970s about half of all RIBA members worked for councils [but] Thatcher was having none of it and today almost no council employs [in-house] architects as such.’

Describing Thatcher’s impact on architecture as ‘mostly detrimental’, he argued the UK would never again see public architecture of a quality equal to the ‘universities and imaginative housing of the 1960s and 1970s.’

With key council services now taken on by private firms, the next stop in Thatcher’s free market revolution was to ensure service providers competed on a level playing field.

For architects, this meant the controversial abolition of RIBA fee scales, a move which came about in 1982 following on-going pressure from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that had begun in 1979.

Alan Wilkinson of Suffolk-based WPP Architects said: ‘Ever since Thatcher’s government removed the mandatory fee scale, fees for architectural services have been pushed down and down. Many clients now seem to choose the designers of their buildings far more on price than on the quality of their work or the service they offer.’

Past RIBA president Maxwell Hutchinson fought vigorously against fee scales removal at the time. He said: ‘The profession still hasn’t grown up in terms of fees and competition – unlike, say, lawyers. Architects still have an entirely immature attitude to fees and undercutting.’

But Moxon’s Ben Addy challenged this view. He said: ‘I don’t agree that pre-Thatcher days were halcyon days for the profession at all. While it may have made life easier for many architects, the fixed fee scale pretty much amounted to cartel behaviour and it did not guarantee quality while it was in effect.’

Meanwhile Thatcher’s assault on local authorities’ created a new freedom for council tenants to buy their own homes. More than a million council homes were sold off in the 1980s, creating a new property-owning class and potential client base for architects.

Designer Wayne Hemmingway argued the policy had a ‘massive impact’ on the current housing shortage crisis. He said: ‘If she had accelerated council house building to replace those sold off, it would have been good. But to only sell council housing was disastrous.’

He added: ‘In the past [a] shortfall would have been filled by council housing but the system and the momentum to build council housing is not there anymore, even if we had the money, and like any manufacturing industry that is “shrunk”, it takes a long time get back on track.’

Turning to commercial development, Thatcher’s deregulation of City financial services and creation of a Docklands enterprise zone and development corporation created a legacy of towering steel and glass regeneration.

Former CABE chief executive Richard Simmons said: ‘Canary Wharf, skyscrapers and Broadgate all got a boost from the deregulation of financial services and the need to provide large floorplate trading buildings. Thatcher’s influence is written on the skyline of London.’

Her impact on regeneration beyond the capital and in town centres is, however, viewed less positively. Chris Boyce of Capita Symonds said: ‘At the same time deregulation in city planning, and the deliberate destruction of the North of England’s heartlands and industries almost totally destroyed their respective communities and left a soulless landscape of dull public spaces, lazy, shiny pseudo-Chicago office towers and endless “strip” developments. Architecturally the 1980s left our towns little of value. Schools were left to rot; retail went out of town and down the pan while public architecture of merit just didn’t happen.’

Former Urban Splash boss Nick Johnson added: ‘The foundation she laid for financial deregulation and the unbridled pursuit of personal gain paved the way for the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction.The impact on our high streets, the dominance of private equity-led “cookie-cutter” wealth creation are some of the genies we now have to wrestle back into the bottle.’

In Scotland, where Tory support crashed during her time at No 10, Thatcher is recognised by architects as a motivating force towards devolution. Alan Dunlop, visiting professor at the Scott Sutherland said: ‘Her 11 years in office led to the formation of the parliament and devolution as Scotland sought to protect itself from legislation it considered alien. One of the first policies of the new parliament was the development of an architecture policy and the creation of Architecture and Design Scotland.’

Peter Wilson, director of the Wood Studio at Edinburgh Napier University’s Forest Products Research Institute, added: ‘David Cameron’s decision to accord this friend of General Pinochet full military honours for her funeral may well result in a higher-than-expected vote for full independence for Scotland in next year’s referendum.’

Comment: Former cabe chief executive Richard Simmons

In 1980 Thatcher’s government introduced Planning Circular 22/80, an attempt to diminish local planning authorities’ control over aesthetics. This was on the basis that the market would optimise design quality because developers knew best. However this dumbed down design, particularly in housing. It became less necessary to use an architect.

Six years later, the Big Bang in the City opened the way for an office building boom in London. Canary Wharf, skyscrapers, Broadgate all got a boost from the deregulation of financial services and the need to provide large-floorplate trading buildings. As a result, Thatcher’s influence is written on the skyline of London.

Meanwhile out-of-town shed developments flourished as a result of the deregulation of planning controls. It was much easier for supermarkets and other retailers to get their big boxes through under the Thatcher government. Thatcher’s liberalisation probably didn’t lead directly to the Portas review, but we surely got there faster, thanks to her.

It took a riot for Thatcher to let Michael Heseltine loose with the radical regeneration policies which changed the face of London Docklands, Liverpool and many other cities. Thatcher’s government had enormous strengths in property-led regeneration and No 10 took a direct interest in our work in Docklands – culminating, you may remember, in Thatcher travelling up the construction lift on the outside of 1 Canada Square. Tough men in her party quailed at that ride, but not her.





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Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree entirely with Max Hutchinson that architects often have an "immature attitude to fees" - I believe that this might stem from historic [unthinking?] reliance on the fee scales themselves, rather than, for example, understanding your costs, determining the profit you intend to achieve and constructing your fee from there. There are also myriad ways of expressing a fee - in some situations enabling an entrepreneurial attitude to practice - that the scales didn't address.

    A part of why fees have been hammered down subsequent to the abolition of the mandatory scale has been that the successor 'indicative' scales have been based on survey data of previously achieved fees. Being non-mandatory these scales became the measure against which certain clients expected architects to bid [in effect undercut]. Ultimately, when successful, these low bids themselves became a part of the source data for the scale - thereby causing it to act as a downward ratchet.

    Plus at the lower end of the scales the fees provided weren't high enough.

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