Whichever party wins, it will need to address the wider built environment, writes Paul Finch
There are already some pointers as to the debates that are on their way. For one thing, following the initiative led by Labour peer Janet Whitaker, there will be a House of Commons select committee on the built environment. Partly a result of discussion generated by the Farrell Review, this committee will occasionally put architecture and planning at the forefront of political discussion in a way that has not happened before.Whatever the flavour of our new political masters, post-election politics is often the occasion for early action on what might be politically difficult in a few years’ time, and more important for the world of design, the setting out of ambitions for the physical world in which we live.
This can only be a good thing, given the uncertainty surrounding the new location of architecture in the Whitehall departmental firmament – that is to say within Communities and Local Government, rather than Culture.
The uncertainty is not about the logic of the relocation, since the idea of design being considered alongside housing, planning and regeneration sounds a sensible one. However, as former government construction tsar Paul Morrell pointed out last week, who can say that quality, as opposed to quantity, will be at the forefront of CLG thinking given the imperatives for growth and house building? Would anybody like to bet on quality emerging as the winner?
Morrell, who was speaking at a pre-election breakfast discussion organised by World Architecture Festival (WAF) London, also posed another awkward question, which he has teased politicians with: ‘Would you be happy to see house prices fall?’ The impeccable logic of the party manifestos, however vaguely put, is that they would massively increase housing production. If that happens, prices should at least stabilise, no doubt to the horror of Daily Mail readers. (Interesting fact: one third of MPs in the last parliament owned buy-to-let properties.)
I wouldn’t want to bet on housebuilding increasing
Will house building really increase? I wouldn’t want to bet too much on it, especially since governments of all persuasions have spent the last 40 years subsidising home ownership one way or another, the latest example being the offer of right-to-buy to housing association tenants.
Simon Jenkins told the breakfast that the failure to build was part of a wider malaise in respect of the whole idea of planning. He related demands to build on green belt, the triumph of minority interest lobbies, and the failure to produce skyline policies as evidence of the loss, or abandonment, of the principles of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which introduced a vision of what and where we should build.
Reviving a vision for the future of the built environment, as opposed to the more functional matter of providing enough homes, has scarcely been discussed during the election campaign. My WAF colleague Jeremy Melvin suggested that there was an overwhelming case for making public realm the bedrock of architecture and planning policy because what we create for everybody is a reflection of what we think about ourselves and our own ambitions and values.
As various contributors pointed out, there was no contradiction between house building and public realm provision, since landscape and amenity areas would be part of the design proposition. Moreover, it would become even more important if, as everyone agreed, we densify and intensify our existing urban areas rather than sprawling into the countryside.
There was also discussion about the £3 billion retrofit of the Palace of Westminster which is coming our way. The relationship of architecture to democracy will be a fascinating discussion. What would Pugin and Barry make of it?