Sir Sydney Chapman, the only qualified architect in the House of Commons and the man behind the controversial Portcullis House project, retired from parliament last week after 30 years as a Conservative MP – but not before enjoying a final cuppa in the Commons tearoom

Goodbye, Mr Chapman
Goodbye, Mr Chapman

Sydney Chapman was as nervous as he could remember. As he pored over his copious notes, the rustle of the paper could be heard throughout the chamber. The audience descended into silence. A packed House of Commons was awaiting Chapman’s maiden speech, which he would deliver in support of the bill to replace the housing, public works and local government ministries with the Department of the Environment. He was due on the floor of the Commons early: he was the third speaker up, ahead of former Liberal party leader Jo Grimond and one-time chancellor Roy Jenkins. A last glance at the notes, a cough to clear his throat, and Chapman was on his feet to address the Palace of Westminster for the first time: “I am glad to be able to make this speech in this important debate. It is usual for a new member …”

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Nearly 35 years and one knighthood on, septuagenarian Chapman retired as an MP last week, having decided against one more term representing the Conservative stronghold of Chipping Barnet in the north-western fringe of Greater London. He was the only qualified architect in the House of Commons, having worked on pub designs for Boddingtons at his father’s practice, Macclesfield-based W Dobson Chapman and Partners, during the early 1960s. “Working for Boddingtons was when I first learned the importance of field research,” he jokes.

Chapman’s departure is a blow to the construction industry. Although he spent most of his parliamentary career on the backbenches, he was always a main political port of call for the sector. Michael Chambers, the RICS’ director of policy strategy, often briefed Chapman on built environment issues: “If someone in the construction industry had issues, Sir Sydney was always the one to turn to,” Chambers says. “He had a friendly ear and was widely liked. He was seen as a gentleman.”

Sitting in a House of Commons tearoom, Chapman is discussing his role in parliament and the construction industry’s influence upon it since he was first elected as an MP for Birmingham Handsworth. He looks rather uncomfortable about his status in the industry. “I was there to help,” he says, adding humbly: “There was nothing special in being the only architect in the Commons.”

The 1970s

Chapman had proved his loyalty to both his government and the construction industry by making his maiden speech on as unflashy a subject as the old DoE. But as an inexperienced backbencher it was unlikely that he would have much influence in his first term.

He got lucky. Chapman drew the 10th lot on the ballot for introducing private members’ bills, securing parliamentary time for his Urban and Rural Environment Bill. This was in three parts: first, it looked to secure greater protection for listed buildings; second, it called for the protection of trees against felling; and finally, it demanded better public notification of planning changes. The bill failed to reach the statute books, but each of the proposals was an important precursor to later campaign and legislative successes. It helped to shape Chapman’s thinking on the exclusion of listed buildings from VAT a decade later; it led to the formation of the Tree Council in 1974; and the planning change idea was essentially what was to become the posting of planning applications on lampposts.

It was during his first term as an MP that Chapman also noticed that construction could not have a powerful voice in government, a situation he believes lasts to this day. “There were no construction seats, unlike car making, farming or mining, which all had constituencies dependent on those industries,” he says. “Construction was so disparate, spread evenly across the country. It had no bases of power, so although it was one of the largest industries, it had little political clout.”

However, Chapman’s run as an MP was soon to come to a temporary end. In 1974 he was turfed out, along with the Heath administration.

The comeback

Five years later, having spent most of the intervening period as a director of the British Property Federation, Chapman was back as Margaret Thatcher swept to power. His new constituency was Chipping Barnet. This is a neighbour of Thatcher’s Finchley seat, and he says he always felt a “certain loyalty” to her, even though he tends to be linked with the Tory left.

The government may have changed but construction was still unsexy, which is why he reserves particular praise for Michael Heseltine, former secretary of state for the environment, for leading the regeneration of London’s Docklands and Liverpool: “There was a flamboyance with Heseltine. He gave regeneration a high profile.”

Chapman says one of his major achievements in this era was preventing the extension of VAT to refurbishing buildings. He led a group of backbench MPs who argued the move would have stopped companies from finding ways to re-use historic buildings. “It would have put back building improvement to our building heritage and lots of architectural heritage would have been lost.” The VAT extension was duly dropped, proving that backbenchers were “not just lobby fodder”.

Portcullis House

By the time John Major’s government fell in 1997, Chapman had served in the government as a whip, forcing him to resign his non-executive directorships with contractor Lovell and developer Capital and Counties. But it was when Chapman found his party out of government that he secured his most high-profile role: chairman of the House of Commons’ accommodation and works committee. Chapman was effectively responsible for delivering the MPs’ office building, Portcullis House. The scheme was widely criticised – the charges ranged from wasting taxpayers’ money to allowing MPs to smoke in the building – but Chapman defends it. He says: “It was on budget [£234m] and on time, but you wouldn’t think that reading the press coverage.”

It was actually beyond its original budget, but Chapman argues that this was using figures from 1992 and that, allowing for inflation, a more up-to-date price tag would have been £250m. This meant that the whole of the project’s £15m contingency budget was handed back. Chapman concedes that it was an expensive building, but that this was out of necessity: “It had to be expensive. It was built over the largest hole in Europe – the Westminster Jubilee line station – and there was a bomb shield underneath the building.”

The final years

Chapman stopped chairing the committee in 2001, giving him time to reflect on government policy. The planning bill, he says, is redundant. One aim is to get planning decisions made within eight weeks, or 13 weeks for major schemes. Chapman scoffs: “The only thing that can speed up the planning system is the drive and the will to do so. Planning departments are understaffed so cannot deal with the volume of applications.”

He is similarly unimpressed by John Prescott’s sustainable communities plan. He points out that housebuilding output has never been so low – when he first stood for parliament in 1964, 400,000 homes a year were being built. He also fears that Prescott wants to concrete over the South-east: “The real issue is: do you provide the housing where there is the demand for it or encourage it in areas where it is needed? If we go with demand, we will build over the South-east’s green and pleasant land.”

He may be ending the interview by attacking Labour policy, but he soon proves himself to be indeed a gentleman. Labour MP Dennis Turner waves over to him. The well-spoken Chapman calls over: “Someone tells me you’re retiring, too!” Turner replies: “Aye, we’ve been good pals over the years ‘n’ all.” The contrast in their political views is as striking as that in their elocution – Chapman is pro-fox hunting and anti-foundation hospitals whereas Turner takes a strong government line on both issues – yet they are friendly enough to agree a night on the tiles after the election.

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It’s 22 March and Chapman is to make his final speech to the House. As he has got older, the speeches have become easier to deliver. Over the years his younger peers have taken to writing notes on their hands as points of reference as they speak, which he considers “absolutely appalling”. He sticks to his usual raft of notes and makes the valedictory address:

“The hours have been long and the job has been stressful, but rewarding. I shall miss serving my constituents and, dare I say it, the camaraderie and friendship that I have enjoyed throughout the House.” And, with that, construction’s gentleman MP departs.

Who will take over from Sir Sydney Chapman as the House of Commons’ voice for construction?

Richard Younger-Ross
Liberal Democrat MP for Teignbridge since 2001

Why would he be a voice for construction?

Prior to 2001, Younger-Ross ran his own architectural consultancy. Unlike Chapman, though, he was not a qualified architect. He studied architecture at Oxford Polytechnic.

In June last year he spoke in parliament on the Architects Registration Board, questioning whether those sitting on the professional conduct committee could always be neutral. He referred to his time at Oxford. One of the interviewers deciding his final degree was from the RIBA, Younger-Ross hinting that this led to him being doubtful of receiving a good grade: “He introduced himself as having been on the RIBA quinquennial review of the polytechnic in 1976, when I had laid into RIBA for being elitist, self-serving and trying to protect itself. He pointed that out to me when we started the interview.”

The chances

Good, if he holds his seat. His 5% majority is usually enough for the Lib Dems to retain seats, as they are less prone to the swings of red-blue politics, but his Devon constituency is still a Tory target.

Mark Prisk
Conservative MP for Hertford and Stortford since 2001

Why would he be a voice for construction?

Prisk, 42, worked in property and economic development after leaving Reading University in 1983. He was a director of a £3m-turnover practice until 1991, when he turned his hand to the marketing profession. He is a member of the RICS.

He is aware of major real estate issues: the RICS and British Property Federation have briefed him on property investment funds and he has made several speeches in the Commons on stamp duty reform. In March he submitted a written question to the ODPM demanding to know John Prescott’s hotel and travel bills for the MIPIM property conference in Cannes.

The chances

Fair. He won’t lose his seat – his majority is 5603 and a strong Tory turnout should mean this will increase. His interest seems to be specifically property rather than the built environment at large. Now an opposition whip, his time may be spent keeping his party in line rather than developing built environment policy. Is against government demands to build 49,000 homes in Hertfordshire over the next 15 years, fearing it might result in cementing over the green belt.

Ed Balls
Labour candidate for Normanton

Why would he be a voice for construction?

It might seem strange that the man once dubbed “the deputy chancellor”, owing to his near-decade long role as economic adviser to Gordon Brown, could be the man to champion the politically low-profile construction sector. But look at it this way: he was largely responsible for setting up the PFI and sat on the Northern Way steering board, a key plank of the government’s regeneration policy.

As an Oxford and Harvard-educated economist, Balls will also be well aware of the £75bn contribution construction makes to UK plc. He has made his interest in the UK housing market clear, having addressed the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference last year.

The chances

Slim. First, he has to actually get elected. This part should be a doddle, as Normanton in West Yorkshire is a rock solid Labour seat – retiring MP Bill O’Brien won 56.1% of the vote in 2001. But Balls is known to be highly ambitious and is thought to be a leadership contender once the Blair/Brown years are over – construction would get him little coverage in the mainstream media.

Sir Sydney Chapman has been an MP during the terms of office of four different prime ministers. Here he gives his views of them and also the Conservative who is eyeing up the premiership, Michael Howard

Businesslike, unemotional. He did have a sense of humour, although most people didn’t get to see it

Dynamic, led by gut instinct, prejudiced. You knew where you stood and she turned the country around

Decent, likeable. If you have got a huge majority it’s easier to be seen as a decisive leader

He’s not a House of Commons man. He doesn’t like the place. I’m sure he’s likeable – he says “Hello Stanley” to me

Courteous, clever, hugely competent and rather like Thatcher – he’s a very kindly person, but almost gives the opposite impression