The arts minister's passion for better design has won high marks, but does his culture department have enough clout to make it happen?
Arts minister Alan Howarth fits the New Labour image to a T. Dapper, urbane and resembling a British Al Gore, he issues forth in fluent, enthusiastic, Oxbridge tones, not unlike Tony Blair himself, although without the gush. Cynics quip that his earlier political career as a Tory junior minister – he switched benches in 1995, citing a dislike of the Major regime's arrogance and harshness – prepared him well to be one of Tony's cronies.

But his affinity with Blair will help Howarth's drive to implement one of the prime minister's feelgood policies – improving the quality of public buildings and the built environment in general. The Better Public Buildings initiative, launched by Blair at Downing Street last November and followed up with a conference hosted by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment last month, was well received by the architects. Howarth says: "Talking to some who were at the Downing Street reception, they were beside themselves with pleasure; they could hardly believe this had finally happened." With the architectural profession rolling over to have its tummy tickled, the problem Howarth faces is that his Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for developing only a small percentage of public buildings, and those are administered at arm's length though the Arts Council, Sport England, and 60 other quangos. The DCMS is far down the Whitehall hierarchy, below John Prescott's DETR empire, which is responsible for local authority expenditure, construction and planning, and far below the mighty Treasury.

"Everyone pays lip service to the notion that you ought to build good buildings – that's motherhood and apple pie," says Howarth. "The question is how you get a real will, a real insight and imaginative commitment to achieving that across government at senior levels, which means that it's going to be taken seriously throughout the system. And it was clear to me that the DCMS on its own wouldn't be able to achieve what was needed." The vehicle conceived by Howarth for achieving departmental co-ordination on architectural quality is a cabinet committee comprising ministers from eight spending departments and CABE.

"I think this is a very good example of joined-up government. And the fact that Lord Falconer was asked by the prime minister to chair the committee was itself significant, because the really crucial thing has been to win the PM's personal endorsement. Let me say that wasn't difficult, because Tony Blair very readily responded to the suggestion I'd made that we ought to take as one of the distinguishing values of this government a serious, sustained commitment to a high-quality built environment." From the cabinet committee, the message of good architectural design is transmitted to spending departments and quangos through a network of "architectural champions" at minister level. To date, some 20 have been appointed, with Yvette Cooper at Health and Jacqui Smith at Education and Employment winning Howarth's particular praise for their enthusiasm.

"What you have to do is to change the culture," he continues. "There is a huge gap between aspirations expressed by ministers and senior officials in Whitehall, and transforming culture and practice right across the country.

"A lot of reflexes have got to be reprogrammed. More than that, a lot of people have got to have the opportunity to be educated in what this means. Public servants and officials are fellow-citizens of those they serve, and I think there is a latent desire that we should create for ourselves a high-quality built environment. People feel very strongly about this, as with the natural environment. We need to mobilise this genuine commitment to do this job better than before." Howarth has invariably impressed architects and government officials with his genuine – some say passionate – understanding of architecture, both historic and contemporary. He traces this interest in architecture back to his childhood in Winchester, "one of the most beautiful environments in the world", and his first career as a teacher in the 1960s, when he led pupils on architectural tours of London.

On the other hand, he has been criticised for transferring too much responsibility to CABE. And David Rock, former president of the RIBA, argues that the culture department lacks the punch to improve the architectural design of buildings procured using the Treasury's preferred routes of PFI and partnering deals with local authorities, which "are knocking out small and medium-sized architects and builders".

On balance, however, Howarth wins high marks from those he deals with for being a safe pair of hands in implementing proposals. "He has the gravitas and credibility to carry things through," says one, "unlike [his predecessor] Mark Fisher who was fond of making rash promises." In fact, Howarth is such a smooth operator that he is tipped to succeed the fiasco-prone Chris Smith as secretary of state of the DCMS after the election. The question then will be whether future headaches such as the National Lottery and proposed Olympic stadiums will distract him from his architectural interests.

Personal effects

Which constituency do you represent? Since 1997, I’ve been MP for Newport East, where 1340 jobs are threatened by the closure of Llanwern Steelworks. Before that, I represented Stratford-on-Avon for four years.
Do you have a family? I have four children but I divorced my wife in 1996.
Which recent buildings excite you? The new Frank Gehry popular music centre in Seattle, where the building becomes like a musical instrument itself, and MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s casket-like Ruskin Library in Lancaster.
Which recent buildings dismay you? The Marsham Street towers, which used to be part of my beat – my heart sank as I passed the threshold.
What gives you a buzz outside politics? Walking across Hampstead Heath with my 16-year-old son – and there are no buildings around!