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First interview with Margaret Hodge

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Margaret Hodge gives the AJ her first ever interview as minister for architecture.

What do you think the role of an architecture minister is?

It is difficult to answer so early on, but I should stress how important place is to people, and buildings are a crucial part of place. Architecture has always been important in all my ministerial positions.

And actually, architecture is a really good discipline. You develop a whole range of skills - you have to have physics and maths and you've got to have social understanding.

We must remember we're jolly good at architecture in the UK. We have the Richard Rogers, the Norman Fosters and the Michael Hopkins, so we have a big tradition.

What kind of house do you live in?

I live in trendy old Islington. We bought before the boom and when we moved in the mortgage broker asked, 'Why are you moving into this house?' He thought we were bonkers.

It's an 1860s crescent and is terrifically flexible. When we moved in I had two children and then went up to four. Now we're back to two of us, and we have managed to change the space and enjoy it. And that is what is interesting. There's an 1860s building which has proved flexible after 150 years.

How do you see the balance between development and protecting heritage?

Both are crucial. Obviously there's the debate going on in London on how you protect heritage with the influx of tall buildings.

I drive to Barking often and so drive past Canary Wharf, which I think is quite attractive now, but I hated it when I watched it go up, and I still think they got an awful lot wrong. They failed to put in any of the infrastructure. It was like going to a ghost town. Like a gated development, juxtaposed to Tower Hamlets. But I now quite like passing those buildings.

Tall buildings can be quite soulless, however. It's like when you fly into American cities, they all look a bit the same. The skyline is pretty similar with just a different array of skyscrapers.

People on the whole don't want to engulf the Tower of London with tall buildings, but there is the other side - the Gherkin is very interesting. These will be our monuments to the future.

What is important is that we value our past but also realise what we do in the present will create the legacy for the future. I'm not pro one or the other.

We have this wonderful heritage in London and we must make it work with exciting buildings of the future.

What are your thoughts on housing needs and the role architecture has to play?

In my constituency in Barking, there is Barking Riverside. It won't work unless we get the DLR out there. That's where we went wrong in the Docklands. We have a commitment from government but we now need the funding to emerge swiftly.

But then there is the design, and we cannot have a repeat of Bellway Homes [Barking Reach regeneration programme] houses, which was disappointing to say the least. They have now learnt the lesson and they've brought this Dutch firm, Maxwan, to do a masterplan. It is now integrating housing - social housing to rent and housing to buy. But it shows that design really matters.

There is a desperate shortage of affordable housing to rent. The legacy of right to buy has meant the loss of what was very good social housing. I think that is one of the major factors contributing to current community tensions, which has led to the rise of the BNP.

These people feel a huge lack of fairness. There is desperate need for affordable housing if you want to create community cohesion.

What are your thoughts on the sustainability agenda?

Another huge job, and it's not just new housing. There are 25 million homes, and even if we build 250,000 that's only 1 per cent. The challenge is cutting emissions from houses like mine.

Architects think of new housing, but what about existing housing? Domestic CO2 output is one of the biggest contributions; I think it is 40 to 50 per cent of emissions. And then you have to look at how the street works together as a whole to achieve lower CO2 emissions. Architecture needs to do more each year.

What do you think architects building vast housing projects today can learn from the mistakes from the 1960s?

It's really important that what we build works for people. There is the Marquess Estate in Islington it was halied as a great success, and Harold Wilson even gave it an award, but it's now being torn down. It was an absolute disaster. It was full of walkways: when people want streets, they want their defensible space, such as gardens etc.

Which current regeneration projects have impressed you most?

Well, what I would look at from my own constituency in Barking, is Jo Richardson's school and what is so great about it, it's a school that's bang in the middle of a very difficult area. It's a community school and has within it a library, a police station, community facilities and children's centre. It works terrifically well.

On the other hand I have a new PFI hospital in Romford, and it was a real triumph getting it. But I think that demonstrates our design failures in the PFI programme - there's nine miles of corridor! Who goes to hospital? You're either old or unwell or on crutches! So I hope these new local walk-in centres do a better job.

Architecture is a very male-orientated profession, as is politics. From your own experiences how can women develop more of a foothold in the industry?

I didn't realise it still was. There has been a change in other professions, medicine and law due to girls outperforming boys at school, but I wasn't aware there still was such a gap in architecture. It obviously isn't just young women not starting, there are glass ceilings, although I would have thought architecture ought to be something that you can do on a part-time basis to raise children or look after elderly relatives or whatever. That is a challenge for me.

What is your favourite city?

Siena. When you sit in the square at Siena, with the colour of stones and skyline, and the palace and the cathedral, there is nothing more delicious. It is also the flexibility of stunning heritage moving into modern architecture.

It's that integration of the past and present and looking to the future.

What are your thoughts on the Mayor's public spaces programme?

I think they are hugely important - how we set up the legacy for future generations. But it's also people's sense of wellbeing and identity with space.

But it has to be carefully managed. In my constituency, they feel they don't have affordable housing so suggesting funding a new public space is often met with hostility. So while I value the public spaces programme, you must construct a consensus that it is a worthwhile investment.

What's your favourite building?

That's too difficult. There are far too many! What's yours?

by Richard Vaughan

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