Britain's proud reputation for cutting edge design is in danger of being stifled by an increasingly risk-averse society and pressure from the insurance giants
There was a great story in one Sunday newspaper recently. It described the bewilderment of a member of the Moscow State Circus, who had been visited by the Health and Safety Inspectorate while rehearsing for the new season's show. The performer, a muscular tightrope artist renowned for eschewing a safety net, was required to wear a hard hat while rehearsing his moves. Apart from the rather bizarre mental picture this conjures up, it illustrates how we're becoming a society so risk-averse that we can no longer countenance even well-practised acts of bravado.

Although the Health and Safety Inspectorate serves a necessary function, there is something depressingly repressive about this story. If the great Ivano, third-generation acrobat, insists on doing his act without a safety net, then surely that is his choice, and forcing him to wear a hard hat to rehearsals (he's allowed to wear his Cossack hat while performing) is interfering bureaucracy of the most irritating kind.

In construction, hard hats are much more common, and risk management has become a discipline in its own right. Clients insist on some sort of quantified assessment of their exposure to risk, whether it be physical or commercial. This is all very well, but in reality, what does it mean? The design team, already overburdened with paperwork, is asked to score five pages of different possibilities. They must attempt to decide if failing to achieve planning permission is more or less likely than someone falling down into an excavation; and if it is, what is the severity of the risk – pick a number from one to 10.

So each risk now has a score, which allows the client to tick a box, but doesn't necessarily lead to any mitigation of the risks. Design teams are all too aware of the potential consequences of, say, failing to achieve planning permission, and it's unlikely to be achieved any quicker simply because it scored six on the client's risk list. Mind you, this methodology has certainly helped to highlight some of the tricky facets of the process to less aware clients.

We should trust our wealth of talented designers to know their own expertise, their own limits

The insurance industry, too, has become much more sensitive in recent years, whether to the likelihood of flooding in Sussex or to the litigious tendencies of construction clients, and this has generated different problems. Public indemnity insurance premiums are set to rocket for professional designers – as much as 300% if the Association of Consulting Engineers is to believed – which will cause individual designers to reconsider their own approach. Given a complex issue to resolve, the tendency will be to use the tried and trusted approach rather than propose an innovative solution.

In such an atmosphere, it is doubtful whether some of our most lauded construction achievements would have been built. The Millennium Dome would have been a giant tin shed, the London Eye would have been a conventional Ferris wheel, and the Millennium Bridge might not have happened at all. (Yes, yes, I'm sure there are those who would claim this a good thing – but the lessons learned from the swaying deck will inform bridge design for centuries to come). Design for minimum risk is invariably design to the lowest common denominator. We have always been proud of our reputation as as being at the cutting edge of design; whether this will survive the pressure from the insurance giants remains to be seen.