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Do political parties have the will to develop architecture policies in time for the election?

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If Ed Vaizey wants to make himself a target, he can march up and down Whitehall telling departments they’re not up to snuff, writes Paul Finch

Civil servants are starting to think about the timing of new government policies, bearing in mind the forthcoming general election and the ‘purdah’ which precedes it. As 7 May approaches, definitive policy announcements will vanish from Westminster, but transfer to the election manifestos of the political parties. Where might architecture feature in all this?

On the face of it, the present government can claim to have architecture on its mind - via the Farrell Review commissioned by culture minister Ed Vaizey.  The review makes a series of recommendations that could be adopted tomorrow by any of the political parties, but the Conservatives have made the running.

The only problem lies in the fact that the government will apparently make no formal response to the review, even though it is said to be looking at specific recommendations. Will we yet see a decision to appoint a government ‘chief architect’ or similar, a successor to the good and wise Bryan Jefferson (RIP), the last person to hold such a post? (AJ 31.10.14).

It seems doubtful because for the job to mean much, it would be necessary to sail through the tricky shallows of Whitehall boundaries and overlaps.  The point of having such a person in office is not to have a cheerleader for architecture in the Department of Culture. Vaizey already serves that role. It would certainly need the Department of Communities and Local Government to acknowledge the potential usefulness of the role in the world of planning, regulations and regeneration.

It would also need the support of the Department of Business, which has responsibility for the construction sector - of which architecture, to some minds (not mine), is a subset. But if it is a subset, as opposed to a vital ingredient, why can’t Peter Hansford take architecture under his wing as chief construction adviser?

Of course an architectural adviser could give useful design guidance to those departments responsible for everything from schools to prisons to embassies to hospitals. But for government departments to welcome such an initiative might suggest that current arrangements left something to be desired.  That is indeed the case, but who wants to admit it? In short, if Vaizey wants to make himself a political target, all he has to do is march up and down Whitehall, telling departments they are not up to snuff on the design front. I am not holding my breath.  There is, however, nothing to stop any of the parties, in the independent language of an election manifesto, adopting Farrell Review recommendations, or alternatives. If elected, it would be much easier for a party to implement an architecture policy (covering planning, housebuilding, procurement and so on) across government on the basis that it had a democratic mandate.

Whether any of the parties would recognise the potential attractions of such a policy is open to question. Sometimes architecture is in, sometimes not. But in its broadest sense it always makes an appearance because it concerns what we want the country, from a physical and environmental viewpoint, to be like.  This involves discussion about architecture and the built environment, which is why New Labour created Cabe in 1999.  The wheel can’t be reinvented, but it would be possible for the aspirations behind that initiative, supported by Terry Farrell and indeed by Ed Vaizey, to be restated loud and clear in the run-up to next spring.

Voters are interested in housing, place, infrastructure, landscape and public space; they like well-designed schools, hospitals, railway stations and the buildings in which they work.  These matters are, literally and metaphorically, close to home.

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