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Whitehall’s confusion about architecture explains the beauty parade

Paul Finch
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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.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The civic furniture of the past has often been architecturally striking (though not necessarily indisputably beautiful); and more likely to be so when, despite being extruded from the trajectories of earlier architecture, it has been clearly a product of its particular time. We might think this of buildings as different as the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, St Stephen's Walbrook, Soane's House, Crystal Palace, Fallingwater, the Sainsbury Centre, and the Kolumba Museum. The difficulty with assigning beauty as the guiding light for development in the 21st century is that, because of its protean aspects and definitions, beauty can only be presented and discussed in a reductive manner; and this is likely to produce, at best, "beautiful" architecture that stolidly repeats that past rather than addresses the socio-urban conditions, aka most lives, of its time. There is quite enough utterly dreadful, pimped-up contemporary architecture without sending Light Brigades of fatally conceived, essentially neo-historic buildings into the Balaclava of Britain's planning and architectural failures. Mr Scruton is reported to have said that women are only harrassed by ugly men. Leaving aside the fact that this is so obviously untrue (see: Sir Kenneth Clark, Alan Clark, Bill Clinton, ad infinitum) isn't it most likely that the government's new commission can only lead to our towns, cities, and countryside being increasingly harrassed by the architectural equivalents of the Night of the Living Dead? For decades, successive governments have demonstrated no decisively engaged interest in architecture's contribution to society. Will the new commission be anything more than yet another headline-only contribution to the urban status woe? Jay Merrick

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