What should the profession’s response be to the new government? asks Paul Finch
It was typical of the most disastrous leader of the Labour Party in living memory that his post-election strategy called for ‘resistance’ to the new government – a government with a thumping majority following an election campaign which persuaded many Labour voters to desert their party for the first time.
So what should be the attitude of the architectural profession, via its representative institutions, to the Boris Johnson administration?
The answer, surely, is to continue promoting what it is that good design can bring to the built environment, to push environmental design in all its many forms, and to campaign for decent standards of housing, education and health for all. There may be opportunities post-Brexit to rethink some policies in relation to procurement, for example. The debate about overseas access to architect jobs seems to have been won.
These would not be policies of Corbynite resistance, but nor would they be collaboration in a pejorative sense. Rather, they would involve that old-fashioned professional attitude of advising, warning and delivering both design and construction outcomes.
Such an approach is politically neutral, in the sense that it does not rely on party politics, but instead focuses on aspirations and potential outcomes. It is also grown-up, since it does not stem from a simple-minded belief that a political party is interested in making things worse because you disagree with its policies.
A government which succeeded in improving housing, education and health would stand a good chance of being re-elected. In general ministers are not averse to professional advice, provided it is based on good research and is not obviously simply about generating work for the profession involved.
Good examples of policies to pursue with government include two promoted by the AJ: the More Homes, Better Homes campaign, as relevant today as it was when it was launched; and the current admirable RetroFirst initiative, which has attracted considerable support and might find attentive ministers interested to explore big-picture ways of helping to achieve climate-change targets.
In respect of housing, the multidimensional nature of the challenge makes the subject highly appropriate for professional analysis and ideas, particularly given the fact that Andy von Bradsky was heavily involved in housing design and delivery before moving to government.
An example of what bodies like the RIBA might also look at are how to reform permitted development rules, which are creating some of the worst housing units we have seen for many years.
The problem with PD has been the failure to insist on minimum space standards
The political instincts of some architects have led them to condemn PD root and branch, but this is surely to miss a point: why not convert redundant office buildings for much-needed housing? Immaculately RetroFirst. The problem with PD has been the failure to insist on minimum space standards for such projects.
As it happens, Boris Johnson was the only major political figure in 40 years who did anything about housing space standards, when he pledged to introduce minimums in his first London mayoral campaign. He followed up and delivered, just as he achieved a supposedly impossible Brexit deal. Who is to say that an approach on PD space standards would not reap results? Similarly, his evolving mayoral approach of thinking about housing as infrastructure would be worth a revisit by the profession, thinking about the politics but not in a narrow party sense.
For an example of what I am talking about, look out for the publication of design principles next month, produced for the National Infrastructure Commission by its design group following seven months of work, begun under one government and continuing under a new one.
This year should be one for this sort of constructive collaboration, not the defeatist hand-wringing that characterised 2019.