Concern for architectural aesthetics has transferred from the Culture Department to the Ministry for Housing, with weird references to Alabama courthouses ensuing, writes Paul Finch
You don’t hear much these days about the alleged problem of construction industry fragmentation. It used to be a frequent complaint of government ministers that it was impossible to have a conversation with a significant part of the national economy because of its lack of a representative organisation.
This was certainly not the case when I began covering these matters as a reporter in the 1970s. At that time, government ministers would have regular high-level meetings with the so-called ‘Group of Eight’, a set of key organisations including contractors and design professionals, serviced by an RIBA secretariat. At that time, the Go8’s main aim in life was to try to convince government not to use the industry as an economic regulator, turning on or off the financial tap depending on the condition of the national economy.
In this, it was not hugely successful, not least because a huge proportion of construction was directly funded by the taxpayer, and more than 50 per cent of the architectural profession worked for public authorities. However, the documents and arguments produced by that RIBA secretariat were impeccable, and there was no question that, at that time, RIBA presidents had unrivalled access to Whitehall, and were given a respectful hearing.
The housebuilding lobby seems to have the same influence as the betting industry, but what is the result? The biggest housing shortage in living memory
These days, it is hard to know who calls the shots. The housebuilding lobby seems to have the same influence as the betting industry, but what is the result of its activities? The biggest housing shortage in living memory, pitiful rates of building and no sign (other than the fatuous ministerial belief that Roger Scruton is the answer) that we are likely to change much for the foreseeable future.
What is worse is the way that construction as a whole is split by government in respect of which Whitehall department is responsible for what. Housing is run by one ministry, construction by another, export activity by another and so on.
So although it is a shock, it should not be a surprise that the Scruton/Beauty policy is being promoted by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Beauty and aesthetics are properly the province of the Department of Culture, aren’t they? Indeed they are, but in the wake of the Farrell Review (remember that?), responsibility for architecture – and by implication the entire built environment, included with architecture as the subject of the review – was switched from the Department of Culture to what is now MHCLG.
Ed Vaizey, the former culture minister who commissioned the Farrell Review and then announced that the government would be making no formal response to it, seemed only too delighted for his department to slough off the mother of the arts. I wonder what he thinks about the weird comments of housing minister Kit Malthouse, who apparently thinks it is appropriate to make a comparison between a Classical courthouse in Alabama (read Klan, as James Ellroy might say) and a mixed-use commercial development on Oxford Street.
Apart from the irrelevance of the comparison in relation to housing policy, ostensibly the occasion for the Scruton appointment, it makes you wonder what the Department of Culture is actually for. Does it have a view on these matters? If it does, it is characterised by a deafening silence. Meanwhile, other ministers rush to fill an intellectual vacuum regarding aesthetics, turning to Scruton to give a semblance of rationality to their ignorant ramblings.
The Conservative minister who has said thoughtful things about the role of beauty in matters of public policy is Oliver Letwin. It would be a good idea if people like Brokenshire and Malthouse asked for some instruction in these matters from someone who has thought about the subject, instead of relaying their ill-considered prejudices as though they were tablets from the mount.