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Housing design champion Lord Howarth talks Pugin and planning

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Richard Vaughan talks to House of Lords housing design champion Lord Howarth

As we walk through the hallowed halls of the House of Lords, Alan Howarth, Labour peer and former minister for architecture
is enthusing over the intricacies of A W Pugin’s masterwork.

‘He detailed everything, right down to the brass mouldings and the folded linen woodwork’, he says. ‘No wonder he died at 40.’

Architecture and design is clearly a passion for Howarth – who is chair of the all-party architecture and planning group and lists the arts among his political interests. He tells me he has recently returned from 10 days enjoying the architecture in Venice. It is an encouraging virtue to have in a politician, and is one held so strongly by Howarth that he, with the help of the RIBA, is currently pushing for changes to be made to the Housing and Regeneration Bill that will write high quality design into the legislation (AJ 22.05.08).

‘The government doesn’t have many levers to pull when it comes to enforcing good design’, says Howarth. ‘And some of the instruments that it attempts to use are not that powerful. We have the right sentiments; Planning Policy Statements 1 and 3 are very good, but they are addressed at such a high level of generalisation that they’re really statements of value and, at best, guidance.’

Government, he added, should be kept at arm’s length when it comes to the arts, and should never specify design; but as a trustee of standards, the government ‘ought to find ways to ensure that people have a responsibility to design’.

In particular, Howarth – who defected from the Tories in 1995 – is targeting the objectives of the new Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) that will be ratified with the passing of the Housing Bill. The new ‘super-quango’ will see English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation join forces to help the government hit its ambitious target of building three million new homes by 2020.

Among his amendments to the HCA, Howarth is calling for Communities Secretary Hazel Blears to appoint at least one person to the 12-strong board, adding that this appointee must have ‘serious knowledge and proven commitment to design’. Commitment to design, Howarth adds, should also be a culture within the agency.

‘You have to get hold of this great beast in any way you can, by the tail, by the legs or by the ears,’ he says. To do this, Howarth has called for the government to include among the HCA’s objectives, not only the notion of high-quality design in new housing, but also a pledge to promote quality design throughout the wider built environment.

‘That’s very important,’ he says. ‘Because it could give the HCA some leverage over the private sector. It would allow the HCA to say to developers that on land provided by the HCA they will be required to have regard to various design considerations. So we’re not only using the HCA to commit to good design with the new housing, but also using the agency to make sure private developers make the same agreement.’

According to Howarth, design is too far down on house-buyer’s lists of priorities as people are far more concerned about simply getting a house to care about design. The supply and demand relationship has been stacked so in favour of the supplier, he says, that housebuilders have been ‘getting away with selling anything’.

Howarth is hoping to combat this by putting a large emphasis on design review processes. A huge fan of the CABE-run design review panels, Howarth is trying to force through an amendment that will see all HCA homes be subject to reviews at pre-planning stage.

‘Design review is a great way of mitigating the difficulties posed by the lack of planners capable of administering the principles of good design,’ he says. ‘The relationship between CABE and the HCA, therefore, will be of the utmost importance. The HCA must turn to CABE and work with it.’

Howarth adds: ‘Some people say design review is a drag on progress, and that it’s another stage in the elaborate planning process when everyone is keen for planning applications to go through the system more quickly. Well yes, but I don’t think you’ll get good design in a rush.’

The Labour peer also aims to ensure that post-occupancy analysis is carried out on all HCA homes, to ensure that the HCA is continuously striving to offer occupiers the best it can. ‘It’s important’, he says, ‘to evaluate whether the people living in the homes think they’re well designed.’

Howarth is looking for more use of design champions: bringing in champions in all governmental departments with land holdings. This is an idea
he pushed for – and convinced then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to implement. This is worrying, however, as few of those appointed have been carrying out their roles.

‘That’s quite a sore point for me,’ he says. ‘After I left government it was reported that they hadn’t done much, if anything. You need a continuous impulse form the top. In a lot of departments, design is marginal. Like volume housebuilders, they have other needs to satisfy.’

Howarth now intends to force similar amendments when the forthcoming Planning Bill makes it way through the Lords. It will be the second half of his ‘pincer movement’ to promote good design, not only in housing but in all major infrastructure projects.

‘There will be enormous pressures in these multi-billion pound projects to cut corners, its important to have legislation to prevent that’, he says. ‘Key decisions on these projects are made by an unelected, appointed body. I think it is integral therefore that we should be able to define very clearly the confines of its remit so we ensure the values that really count are upheld.’

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