Politicians must be stronger in their support for design – and not run for cover at the first hint of criticism. Only then will we get the urban spaces we deserve
Achieving and maintaining high standards of design are now widely recognised as among the key challenges for development planning and urban regeneration in Britain. The fact that design is so high on the agenda owes a lot to the influence of long-term campaigners such as Lord Rogers, whose 1999 report Towards an Urban Renaissance threw down a series of demands to policy-makers.
It also reflects the growing awareness of the important role that design can play in transforming the image and economic prospects of cities as diverse as Barcelona, Glasgow, Bilbao and Gateshead.
However, when it comes to translating good intentions into practical outcomes, results in the UK have been patchy. Yes, we can point to fine examples of imaginative new buildings and sensitively designed public spaces – the Jubilee Library in Brighton and Sheffield’s winter garden and city centre come quickly to mind. But we also have to recognise that several potentially exciting opportunities have not managed to produce outstanding Urban Design.
Why not? There are many reasons, not least the legacy of the past when we did not always accord a proper priority to design quality, a mistake that leaves its mark for a long time. But this is changing and there are many encouraging straws in the wind. The much higher priority being given by the government to design issues, the work of CABE in promoting design quality, and the development of tools such as design quality indicators to help focus attention on the factors that make up good design are all helping to change the culture.
A more fundamental problem in my view is the diffidence shown by many politicians when confronted with design issues. To some extent this is the familiar phenomenon of elected representatives feeling overawed by professionals on subjects where they have little familiarity or experience. But there are other pressures, all of which can discourage politicians from sticking their necks out in support of good design either when procuring a public building or exercising development control responsibilities. Fear of being ridiculed for espousing the unconventional, or being called to account for cost overruns exacerbated by an innovative approach, or the risk of having their decision overturned on appeal – these can all foster a safety first mentality.
Add to this the history of media witch-hunts sparked off by delays or overspending on a few highly publicised projects – such as the Scottish parliament – and it is not hard to understand why many politicians would run a mile when asked to champion a landmark building.
Fear of being ridiculed for a radical, innovative approach can help foster a safety first mentality
So how do we counter these pressures and encourage politicians at national and local level to be braver and more confident in promoting design quality? First we have to give recognition to those who do stick their heads above the parapet. The prime minister’s award for excellence in public buildings is a good start.
Second, we need to knock on the head the insidious myth that high-quality public buildings will invariably end up costing the earth and come in late and over budget. I rest my case on London’s City Hall – the one building I had responsibility for procuring in my time as a minister.
Third, we need to extend public awareness and understanding of good design. Politicians do pay heed to the views and enthusiasms of their electorate. So schemes such as London’s Open House (16-17 September this year), which opens up hundreds of fascinating buildings many of which would not normally be accessible to the public, have a big contribution to make.
But I will only really begin to feel confident that we are winning the battle for design when the subject becomes a regular topic in the mass media. I am not sure that I would want to go as far as having league tables featuring Britain’s best and worst buildings or the most and least attractive town centres, entertaining as that might be. However, until the debate about quality migrates from the specialist press to the national dailies and TV, we will continue to struggle to get politicians to take the issue seriously.
Nick Raynsford is former construction minister