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An architect in government: 'Public estate needs profession's input'

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Sherin Aminossehe, qualified architect and head of the government property’s profession across the civil service, urges the profession to make its mark through the opening up of the public estate

Sherin Aminossehe, head of Regional Strategy within the Government Property Unit (Cabinet Office)

Sherin Aminossehe, head of Regional Strategy within the Government Property Unit (Cabinet Office)

Now that the numbers have been crunched and the dust is settling on the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, it’s fair to say property took its fair share of the limelight.

Top of the tree was a commitment from departments to releasing enough land to build 160,000 homes over the next five years, in the biggest affordable housebuilding programme since the 1970s.

It isn’t just house-building targets that are seeking to recapture the boom of yesteryear. AJ editorial director Paul Finch recently hailed the industry of 50 years ago, when the architecture world was preoccupied less with handing out gongs and ’winning jobs’, and more with ’what contribution the profession could make to helping solve the great social and environmental issues of the day’.

The profession has more of a contribution to make now than it has done for a generation

I want to answer that by saying that the profession has more of a contribution to make now than it has done for a generation. The country’s property, land and housing stock are at the forefront of the public agenda, and the government has responded by enthusiastically backing the Government Property Unit’s core programmes: the civil service office hubs drive, One Public Estate and our New Property Model. Our initiatives have opened up unprecedented opportunities to get involved in transforming the estate for the better, at a time when the issues facing the architecture world are at the forefront of the public mind. What we need is as much input from the profession as we can possibly get.

In 2014, for example, we opened up the entire government estate, launching the Government Property Finder website and the Right to Contest, telling property professionals that, if they can think of a better use for our £350 billion property portfolio, they can have their way.

Never in history has the vast UK government estate been so open to reform. Never before has there been such a treasure trove of sites itching for a creative hand to whisk them away, dust them off and wrap them up with a neat little festive bow on the desk of that hard-to-please client. The prize for architects is staggering: a wealth of potential exclusive job leads, and the chance to showcase their most innovative work while helping find a solution for some of the biggest challenges facing our country. So far, we’ve yet to receive any proposals from our country’s host of world-leading architects, and we want to hear more from you.

If architects want to be industry leaders again they need to start by leading action on the issues facing the country

Sure, some of the sites can be difficult, but there are plenty of gems in there for those looking to flex some creative muscle. We’ve got old bakeries, nuclear bunkers, lighthouses, airfields, magistrates’ courts, and everything in between. You name it, you can find it. We’re offering up the biggest and most varied estate in the country as a playground for the industry.

If architects want to be industry leaders again they need to start by leading action and debate on the issues facing the government and the country. And a great place to start is helping us tackle the housing supply, the deficit and the better use of our built environment. After all, only you have the skills and imagination to release these sites’ full potential.

Some of this creative ingenuity is on display in the hard work being done by talented architects at King’s Cross, Stratford and Mayfield – some of the most exciting regeneration projects this country has ever seen. Dreary government hinterlands such as Victoria Street are being turned into thriving mixed-use districts, and we intend to release a further 600 of our 800 offices to the market by 2020. And every day councils are coming up with innovative ways to use our One Public Estate programme.

Many of those Paul Finch was talking about were the industry icons today’s leaders aspired to be as they cut their teeth at their first practices. He’s right to call for architects to lead a collective mission – but I think they can go hand in hand with jobs and awards, as the Stirling Prize has shown. We’re offering an unprecedented opportunity for all three, and it’s imperative we get as much input from architects as we can get. Design is as powerful a tool in mobilising action as it was half a century ago – but the prizes today are far greater.

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