Last week Culture kissed goodbye to the mother of the arts, writes Paul Finch
We gathered in the Strangers’ Dining Room of the House of Commons last week to mark the first anniversary of the Farrell Review launch and its next phase, when Farrell will keep a friendly eye on who does what, but will not be directly involved or responsible. Terry made a nice speech and was followed by architecture minister Ed Vaizey, then by housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis.
A welcome was given to the new select committee for the built environment, pushed by two baronesses – Whitaker and Andrews, the latter a former chair of English Heritage.
The nice thing about such a committee is that it can call anyone from any department as a witness, and should therefore be able to promote the cross-departmental nature of architecture and its delivery.
Then a little rumour went around: responsibility for architecture was going to be moved from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
To tell the truth I didn’t give it much credence at the time. If it was going to happen, then surely the ministers would have said so as a tribute to the work of the Farrell Review and its efforts to push the importance of architecture (in its broadest sense) onto the political radar. Vaizey looked very relaxed, when one might have sensed a little tension, were he about to lose a chunk of his responsibilities.
No doubt the protocols and requirements of the Cabinet Office played a part in preventing an announcement then and there. But, with an election pending, the timing seems odd. Who knows who will be in charge of what on 8 May?
For the moment, all we can do is assess the virtues or otherwise of the proposed new arrangements. If one were to judge the performance of DCMS in relation to architecture over the lifetime of this government, the verdict would be: please let someone else take over.
The Vaizey/Farrell initiative is of the Band-Aid variety, given that it was made clear that the government was not going to take any action over its recommendations.
Sadly, the DCMS had given up any pretence of caring about architecture and design when it scrapped CABE’s funding from April 2011, with the creepy Jeremy Hunt taking plaudits for getting rid of a quango while shedding crocodile tears over the demise of a body with an international reputation, which stood for many of the values, attitudes and indeed policies espoused in the subsequent Farrell Review.
His architecture minister, the unlamented Jonathan Penrose (whatever happened to his career?) later said he had considered resigning over the broken promises made to CABE commissioners and indirectly to staff. But, in a typically gutless politician’s reaction, he decided to stay put.
This brings us to Communities and Local Government. CLG had agreed to fund CABE after 2010, as it had done for many years, jointly with DCMS. To its great credit and that of secretary of state Eric Pickles, the department stuck to its word (unlike DCMS), and continued funding us for two years after Culture had pulled the plug.
The reason was that our work for CLG served useful public purposes, which were defined for reporting and assessment, as in previous years. The same was true for our DCMS activities, but …
CLG was also very helpful in aiding CABE’s merger with the Design Council, where the flag is still flying for architectural and urban quality.
So, three cheers for CLG. As far as the DCMS is concerned, the failure to take architecture seriously is a symptom of intellectual failure, which will one day bring this odd department’s days to an end.