The back story of the Blair years is undoubtedly one of economic growth.
The record performance of the economy twinned with record investment from government has enabled our sector to grow and prosper and to create world-class companies, delivering well designed, sustainable developments right across the UK. We’ve rediscovered architecture; an appreciation of good design has become mainstream and saving the planet is no longer a preoccupation confined to cranks.
Our towns and cities are making a comeback – three cheers for the Rogers taskforce – and urban regeneration is core business for many housebuilders in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Brown is the new black.
Blair has always had a keen interest in these issues, although content to outsource the leadership to John Prescott for much of the decade. And when pushed, as he shows in his interview with Building, it is the community projects that he most readily identifies with (pages 28-31). When the history of this decade is definitively written, it may well be that his legacy, as he claims, lies more in community buildings, Brighton Library, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Mossbourne Academy, Sheffield Winter Gardens, than in iconic buildings such as Swiss Re or the Scottish parliament.
But, as he readily concedes, the job remains to be completed. Some of our great cities are on the march again but many market towns and smaller settlements remain in economic and physical decline. Our new towns, all built in the same era, need fresh investment if they are not to become the regeneration problems of the mid-21st century. And our 1950s and 1960s housing estates need to be radically transformed if they are to provide the safe, comfortable, pleasant mixed communities of the future. Rough sleeping has been tackled, but homelessness persists, especially in the capital. And who would be a first-time buyer in Britain? There has been unrelenting pressure on supply over the whole decade.
So weighed in the balance, it feels as though he leaves a legacy of much success but some intractable problems. The planning system remains dysfunctional and the arguments for growth ably articulated by Kate Barker remain highly controversial in many circles. Even after 10 years of rehearsing for the role, there are many reservations about the government’s ability to act as an intelligent client. Let’s look forward to a time when projects are more Jubilee line than Scottish parliament.
Overall, though, we’ve had a great run. In 1997, the refrain was that “things could only get better”. As far as the built environment is concerned, they did.
Margaret Ford, guest editor