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Architects can always focus on what should be achieved

Paul Finch
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Howard Davies’ airport recommendation is a reminder that architects are an antidote to uncertainty, says Paul Finch

Last week’s predictably dozy Heathrow runway decision by Howard Davies (hero of the Financial Services Authority and the London School of Gaddafi Economics) is a reminder that decisions delayed are generally decisions degraded.

In the early 1970s, permission existed for an estuary airport, to be delivered in the 1990s. The politicians managed to duck a start on the project, thus ensuring our current under-capacity. In the same way, David Cameron deliberately adopted procrastination as his aviation mantra for the past five years, with the lackey Davies doing his bidding.

The laughable idea that we should be worrying about a single runway rather than whole airports has alas become official policy. Norman Foster seems to be the only prominent person in the built environment world to carry on flying a flag for a proper infrastructure strategy, of which an estuary airport would be an important part, but not the only part.

An estuary airport would be an important part of a proper infrastructure strategy

It may not be too late, of course. The reality is that by the time a new runway is built at Heathrow – or more likely Terry Farrell’s Gatwick alternative – capacity demands will have grown again. Sooner or later we will have to go east from London, with the London Borough of Heathrow emerging as the 21st-century equivalent of the Royal Docks – with redundancy followed by revival.

Bleating from the CBI about the sky falling in and cows dropping dead in the fields if Heathrow does not expand is akin to its alarmist predictions about what would happen if we left the EU. It is all phoney propaganda (like its warnings about us not joining the Euro), and ignores the fundamental reality of business life, which is that companies behave in a Darwinian fashion.  They would have 15 years to make sensible decisions about their location in the event of an estuary airport being built.

Companies would make those decisions rather more slowly than the Canada geese, which would find somewhere else on the east coast to make their home, birds being quicker to respond to reality than humans – which is why, despite all the awful warnings, hundreds of new airports across the globe have not resulted in hundreds of planes crashing because of our feathered friends.

In a world of constructional uncertainty, the architect’s task is frequently to focus on what can and should be achieved. Of all the options available, which should be pursued to actual delivery?  The reluctance of public authorities to acknowledge the contribution architects can make stems partly from attitudes at the highest levels of government. I was shocked to hear recently that there has been a working assumption inside the Treasury since at least 2000 that architects should, wherever possible, be excluded from active engagement with clients.

I shouldn’t have been shocked, since come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what PFI procurement is based on? So the designers of schools are not permitted (or aren’t given enough time) to speak to teachers, parents and children themselves about what sort of building would be right for them. Instead they get a standard roll-out. But whose standard?

Just when we thought we had fixed minimum space standards for London homes, Mayor Boris has dumbed down the floor-to-ceiling requirement, no doubt at the behest of a government embarrassed by his crusade for non-hutch homes. The government’s own national standards are not, of course, mandatory, any more than the so-called High Quality Mark for homes produced by the BRE. Once again uncertainty rules, promoting that magnificent British aspiration: the lowest common denominator.

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