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Architects react: ‘Scotland is a much changed political landscape’

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Scotland’s architectural profession has optimistically responded to the SNP’s landslide victory north of the border

A total of 56 Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs – led by First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon – will be sworn into parliament on 18 May.

Despite being an unprecedented leap from only six MPs prior to the election, RIAS secretary and treasurer Neil Baxter said it had been ‘known for a good while’ such a shift was coming.

He said Scotland had, overnight, become a ‘much changed political landscape’ adding: ‘If you look at the [knife’s edge] referendum and you translate the passion for the yes vote into voting patterns for the general election, you were clearly going to get an SNP majority.

‘The no voters were split between the three unionist parties.’

Baxter went on to suggest greater SNP influence at Westminster could be a welcome boost for Scotland’s architects and built environment.

He said: ‘It’s very clear the SNP is more left than Labour has been for some time so effectively this could bring a social welfare agenda – an agenda which is less about a capitalist manifesto than a welfare manifesto’

Describing SNP’s track record in Holyrood, he said: ‘The SNP legislature seems to get the built environment. That’s not to say everything they do is embraced by construction professionals and bodies like ourselves but they have a policy on architecture and the right mood music. For example, the minister with responsibility for architecture is a member of the cabinet.’

Talking up the possibility of a united opposition against deeper Conservative-led spending cuts, Baxter said: ‘Ultimately David Cameron has control and he can defeat any vote but Labour, SNP and the Liberal Democrats can work together.’

He continued: ‘Improving people’s lives through better housing, education and medical care is a duty and responsibility of any government. And a government which has a left leaning conscience shouting in its ear with have to acknowledge that.’

Colin Harris of Edinburgh-based Sutherland Hussey Harris was more cautious, explaining: ‘It will be a very different country I have no doubt but have no idea how it might pan out.’

Commenting on the outcome for architects, he said: ‘As for our own profession, we have been feeling as if the work has been drying up in recent years although the political spin suggests it isn’t.

‘If this is the case nationally then I’m not looking forward to the foreseeable future.’

Malcolm Fraser of Edinburgh-based Malcolm Fraser Architects argued  Scotland’s ‘divergent political culture’ was now poised to deliver major improvements for architects and the built environment.

  • Read Fraser’s full comment and responses from other Scottish architects below

 

Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm Fraser Architects

‘Wow.  Confirmation, it feels, of a divergent political culture: at the very least that Scotland will refuse to unravel the post-war social consensus that England has abandoned;  but also, I think, a culture here that is learning, for the first time, the value of engagement and participation.  There are Bills on the way through Parliament on Community Empowerment and Land Reform which will give communities significant access to land and buildings.  And if the Land Reform and Housing Action Groups that I, and others, are pushing, accept recommendations for a land value tax, there will be major changes to how developers and housebuilders act – for they follow the money, and such a tax will shift it from land speculation to the actual act of building.

‘All is not rosy.  We are still working within the neoliberal consensus that it is process that matters, deals and speculation, procurement and project management.  The bankers and lawyers that control them are still King and the importance of the craft of architecture still distant.  But we feel like a young and hopeful nation, of a size and an optimistic outlook that must listen.

‘Lastly, we need to make simple financial changes like level VAT across housebuilding, to make the housebuilders follow the money into repair.  And higher top-earners taxed to pay for social housing.  We need full fiscal autonomy to do stuff like this… oh but we can’t have full fiscal autonomy while we still carry the murderously-idiotic costs of Trident and the invading of foreign countries.  So Independence would be good for architecture, too.  And I think I can safely say that this journey is approaching its end.’

Rory Flyn, Dualchas Architects

‘My initial exhilaration at the progress of the SNP has been tempered by results from the rest of the UK returning a majority Tory government. Again, the votes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have no effect on the make-up of the government.

‘The fact that there will be a strong bloc of Scottish parliamentarians supporting the reformation of voting system, the abolition of the House of Lords, the non-renewal of Trident and encouraging responsible public investment will hopefully provoke some more progressive thinking in the opposition.

‘The Labour party seems to have missed the boat entirely as to how the voters of Scotland in 2015 are thinking. 90,000 new members of the SNP have been encouraged to join through positive campaigning and a clear vision of the type of country people want to live in. There is a growing realisation that independence (whenever it comes) is the only mechanism to allow progressive government in Scotland and for our votes to count.

‘The constitution though will be the most pressing issue in the next parliament with the democratic deficit now very apparent.’

Alan Dickson, Rural Design Architects

The over enthusiastic, austerity driven agenda of the conservative government is going to produce an extremely painful few years. We can already see our national infrastructure falling apart as a result of under investment over the past few years. The further cuts are going to severely restrict opportunities for publicly funded projects, most importantly the provision of social housing, which is already at an all time low. The prospect of a referendum on Europe is also terrifying, and can only dilute the confidence of investors in our economy throughout the UK. The imminent attack on welfare is going to have a catastrophic affect on our society.

On top of all this, the populist success of the nationalists creates even more uncertainty. It seems another independence referendum is inevitable within the next few years. The uncertainty of the previous referendum had a major effect on economic confidence, and this only draws this pain out further. We are caught between extremes. I am not looking forward to the next five years.

Peter Wilson, director of the Wood Studio research centre at Edinburgh Napier University

‘Who would have thought that one night’s events could so markedly distinguish the political aspirations of one part of the UK from another? Scotland could hardly have given a clearer message to the discredited, dysfunctional Westminster system that the status quo is no longer acceptable and that if the Union is to survive, rather more respect for - and a more equal distribution of resources to - all parts of the UK now has to be the order of the day.

“The status quo is no longer acceptable”

For its part, the Scottish government has already invested a considerable proportion of the resources allocated to it from Westminster in infrastructure projects such as the new Forth Crossing and the Waverley rail line as a means of mitigating the austerity agenda and stimulating the economy north of the border, but there is likely now to be strong demand to rethink the disproportionate allocation of UK national resources that underpin projects such as Crossrail and HS2. Similarly, the pressure to build more housing has resulted in government initiatives in England that distort the market and arguably privilege one part of the country (the South East) at the expense of others and there is likely to be greater questioning of how these impact upon Scotland and other parts of the UK and what can be done to redress the balance.

‘Whether AJ readers are in agreement with these new political realities or not, the very different economic and environmental circumstances in Scotland and its new cohort of SNP MPs are likely to drive a substantially different opposition response in the UK Parliament over the next few years. Interesting times indeed, and ones that the profession must play a pro-active role in if it is to see new and environmentally responsible construction programmes emerge north and south of the border. ’

 

Rab Bennetts, director, Bennetts Associates

‘This result could hardly be more worrying. I accept there was an argument for continuity with David Cameron and George Osborne, but in reality what we are faced with is instability, by virtue of division between Scotland and the UK, greater division between the ‘haves’ and the have-nots’ and potential division from Europe. And the tempering influence of a coalition partner has disappeared too. As for Scotland, the SNP landslide was inevitable after Cameron’s ill-judged response to the referendum result last year, but at least Osborne’s reaction this morning was more conciliatory. 

This result could hardly be more worrying

‘I’m in Edinburgh right now and I haven’t seen people dancing in the streets, as a majority Tory government was the result they didn’t want. One ray of hope is that Nigel Farage didn’t get in, so maybe we should now expect a more mature debate on Europe, climate change and so on. I hope so.’

Thea McMillan, design director, Chambers McMillan Architects

‘I feel delighted that so many Scots voted for a party that spoke of supporting, caring for and enabling people: a society which cares and supports is also a society which prioritises buildings which do this, from schools and hospitals, to respite centres and accessible places.

The Tory government defines buildings as corporate economic structures

‘But I’m also devastated at the prospect of five more years of a Tory government, which not only punishes those that in their eyes are not able to look after themselves, but also one where buildings are defined not as enabling, but as corporate economic structures.

‘The referendum felt like a positive choice, for a society which we could make better, and with that create places and spaces to reflect and support this. Hopefully this will still be possible within any extended devolution, and can inform and encourage others in the UK to keep working towards a society that supports architecture as an enabling force.’

Paul Stallan, design director, Stallan-Brand

Political continuity under SNP will consolidate and simplify procurement

‘Architectural practices in Scotland are not expecting radical changes in the procurement of public projects further to the recent election results. Political continuity under SNP will if anything help consolidate and simplify the procurement landscape with hopefully the recommendations made in the Scottish Government publication ‘Review of Scottish Public Sector Procurement in Construction October 2013’ reinforced. A key view posited by this paper and one embraced by the architectural community was that Scotland’s local authorities need to understand the criticality of an excellent project briefing and that regardless of the procurement route a design led process will result in good architecture. 

‘With regards to commercial projects the hope is that with political stability and more constructive relations with Westminster that market confidence in Scotland will be further bolstered. We are architecturally optimistic.’ 

 

 

 

 

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