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Gordon Gibb: 'The future benefit will be in how Scotland sees itself'

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The success of the SNP at the general election could be a catalyst for regional federalism and the break-up of the London-centric RIBA, says Gordon Gibb

The feeling about the Scottish election result among the architects I’ve spoken to has been resoundingly positive. 

Last year’s referendum was seen by most as a triumph for local democracy. Now the elected party of our government has done very well down in Westminster. The unity shown by the Scottish people has given our nation a much greater level of representation there. 

However, while the Tory administration holds powers to itself, there is a limit to what can be done for the benefit of Scotland. Yet there is certainly a feeling that in the elections the Scots, by standing together behind the party of their government, have already achieved a great deal. 

This election, for most, was never about nationalism, nor about creating a springboard for another referendum - contrary to the spin spouted by the political class. For most Scots it was about social and political responsibility and local democracy.          

From a Scottish viewpoint the reporting of the SNP challenge by the London media has been seen as disproportionate and uninformed. Much has been claimed about public expenditure in Scotland, without anyone examining the impact of centralisation and relative wealth on service delivery in parts of England. Under the progressive SNP administration, the amount spent on welfare per person has increased at a slower rate in Scotland than in the UK as a whole and is less than that spent in Wales, the North East of England, the North West of England and the West Midlands. The control of spending in Scotland is hardly the action of a government under an unrealistic ideology, contradicting what has been touted as ‘the economic truth’ throughout the Tory, and later the Labour, election campaigns. These figures, exposing inequity in opportunity elsewhere, were never discussed. 

The difference between the televised debates, between the one where the minor parties were able to account for themselves - and did so rather better than the established leaders - and the one for the main leaders only - where the minor parties were wrongly miscalled with no right of reply - exposed the real failure of democracy in the two-party system. 

Perhaps this, and the record of Labour as a subset of the Westminster party ‘only following orders’ in the referendum, and the Liberals being a subset of Toryism, has assigned them both to the receptacle normally reserved for the Tories in Scotland.

In living memory the political outlook in Scotland, like much of the remainder of England, has always been to the left of that of the south of England, where the decisions are made and the press stories are written.  Perhaps due to historic post-industrial poverty, the legacy of lack of wellbeing or opportunity, there has always been a value attributed to the state caring for those who could not look after themselves. 

While populist policies such as Right to Buy are seen by the Tory administration as attractive because they offer gains or ‘a step up’ for some, the resultant reduction in the quality of the public housing stock, needed for those who cannot buy, is seen by the Scottish Government as a reason why it should not be implemented in Scotland.

Whether there will now be a development bonanza in Scotland, I don’t know.  It is unlikely there will be any influx of inward investment from Westminster, because Tory policies remain centralist.  Also, it is unlikely that vast swathes of new land will become available for housing, because the casual redrawing of planning boundaries to the financial benefit of landowners or landbankers does not appear to be likely to be followed in Scotland.  Having said that, there is plenty of post-industrial brownfield land to go around in our cities, and, from information garnered from the student body in the years out, plenty of post-recession work for the profession.

Public procurement in Scotland in recent years has been criticised by the profession for being careful, with value for money often being equated with low cost in the ongoing atmosphere of austerity. Nevertheless there is a smaller percentage of new buildings procured through design and build in Scotland than in England.

As a result there are many very high quality examples of modern architecture in Scotland.  Starchitecture in Scotland has not shown as much regenerative impact as it has ego-satisfaction in recent years. [Kengo Kuma’s] overlarge and expensive Dundee V&A may yet languish for years in wasteland, just like [Zaha Hadid’s] over-small and expensive Riverside Museum has done in Glasgow.

The future benefit will be in how Scotland sees itself, with a self-confidence providing investment incentive and security, and how it is seen by others abroad, as a self-determining attractor of inward investment. Growth of administrative power will also be good for Scotland, because history shows that overall prosperity has an inverse relationship to distance from a political administrative centre.  Paradoxically, growing political self-determination may improve Scotland’s relationship with many of its neighbours down south. The lack of love for the Westminster elite and its apparently self-serving policies is not restricted to Scotland.  I find a commonality of view with the architects I speak to in what the RIBA dismissively calls ‘the regions’ throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The panic that ensued after the possibility of a Yes vote in the referendum caused Cameron to blurt ‘regionalism’ in his self-defence after having given away more powers to save his skin. Perhaps Scottish self-determination really will be a catalyst for a form of regional federalism, allowing the growth of opportunity around centres in England other than London. I certainly hope so.

The one body that appears to stand against that trend is the RIBA.  It has never been all that popular in Scotland, for its financial stranglehold on its supposed partner, the RIAS, and its more recent creation of the non-architect ‘associate’ class, matching the title of the architect membership class in Scotland, despite strong criticism. Its recent attempt to influence government to get rid of ARB and the Part 3, and its anti-democratic and anti-pedagogic attempt to control education of architects for its own ends, just to increase membership numbers now seems ‘so last century’, never mind a shocking conflict of interest. 

RIBA’s role in education is amateur and peripheral at best

Its claim to have reviewed education on the basis of a vote of as few as 26 worthy people in London during the delivery of an uninformed set of dictats, coming to the conclusion that an Integrated Award such as is eschewed by all progressive administrations should be adopted is all rather embarrassing, as is the fact that this ill-considered idea is only now being rolled out for what is described as consultation.  Plans to reduce educational standards to ‘match Europe’, just when most European countries that don’t already outstrip our standards are raising them to match or exceed them, seem rather self-defeating for our professional standing.  Now the RIBA plans to use UK-wide subscriptions to benefit architects setting themselves up in business, but only in London.  Activities such as these have probably always gone on, and RIBA governance has been brought into question pretty regularly in recent years, but there does appear to be a growing ground-swell of opposition to them from members I have been in touch with, and not just in Scotland. 

Perhaps federalism throughout the UK needs to include, for the benefit of the profession, the breaking up of the RIBA power base into its regional centres, a confirmation of the fact that the RIBA’s role in education is amateur and peripheral at best, and a re-focusing of effort based upon a democratic reassessment of who the RIBA’s constituency, or paying customer, actually is.

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