With the anticipation of a general election hanging in the air, we examine the importance of architecture to politicians and the people who vote for them – and takes stock of what Blair has done for the built environment in his eight-year tenure

Health buildings should be airy and uplifting like Avanti Architects’ ACAD Centre in west London, pictured – not tightly packed megastructures such as <a href=Kier’s Hairmyres PFI hospital" src="https://d2vhdk00tg424t.cloudfront.net/MediaLibrary/s3/ubm-library/web/l/e/q/G12ARCH1.jpg" imagecode="81388" />
Health buildings should be airy and uplifting like Avanti Architects’ ACAD Centre in west London, pictured – not tightly packed megastructures such as Kier’s Hairmyres PFI hospital

“There are votes in architecture.”

This bald assertion begins the RIBA’s new invigorated manifesto for architecture, which it launched this week, in good time for the general election. In it, the institute argues that architecture wins votes because it governs the quality and safety of our hospitals, schools and neighbourhoods, expresses our values as a society and, as part of the £100bn construction sector, it helps to drive Britain’s economy.

Well, the RIBA would say that, wouldn’t it? But do the candidates running for parliament and the public who vote for them also regard architecture as a vote-winner? And if so, how does it compare with such perennial public concerns as the resourcing and management – as opposed to the design – of hospitals, schools, transport and housing?

One of the very few surveys of voter opinion on architecture was carried out by MORI in 2002. More than 1000 people were asked whether a significant improvement or decline in their local environment would make them “more inclined” to switch their vote to a different party at the next council election.

Forty-five per cent said yes – which would be enough to decide just about every election in history. But that assumes there are no changes in any other election issue, and it concerns local government elections, not a general election.

Prescott sees <a href=prefabrication as the saviour of housing, as in Proctor & Matthews’ microflats in south London, pictured. Bellway reverted to dismal type for the first phase of Barking Reach" src="https://d2vhdk00tg424t.cloudfront.net/MediaLibrary/s3/ubm-library/web/l/s/o/12ARCH4.jpg" imagecode="81385" />
Prescott sees prefabrication as the saviour of housing, as in Proctor & Matthews’ microflats in south London, pictured. Bellway reverted to dismal type for the first phase of Barking Reach

On the other hand, if it is doubtful that good public buildings win votes, it is probable that bad ones lose them – the Scottish parliament fiasco has already been blamed for John Prescott’s defeat in the referendum over whether to set up devolved regional government in the North-east. And ask yourself whether people would be deterred from voting for the Labour party if government-backed buildings, housing and public spaces gained a reputation for being ugly, shoddy and inefficient. It is worth remembering the adage that oppositions never win elections, governments lose them.

As regards the attitude of Westminster politicians, Christine Russell, Labour MP and secretary of the parliamentary group on architecture and planning, strikes an ambivalent note. “Architecture is becoming an election issue in a minor way,” she says, although more in reference to the question of whether or not to demolish large swaths of terraces in northern Pathfinder schemes. As for the MPs themselves, she says: “I don’t think architectural design impinges on the consciousness of most of them, as compared with, say, crime. There are 659 MPs, all with different priorities, and many have very little interest in local development. They just bat it back to the town hall and local councillors.”

The importance of aesthetics

But if the RIBA was being a shade over-optimistic about the importance of architecture to the voting intentions of the British public, there is no doubt that is becoming more important in the setting of the national mood. For the public at large, architecture has lost its automatic association with damp grey high-rises and despoiled city centres and has become a major crowd-puller.

The live television broadcast of the Stirling Prize attracts audiences of 1.5 million, comparable to that of the Bafta awards, and architecture-related programming has become a staple of prime-time television, from Grand Designs on Channel 4 to Jonathan Meades on the BBC.

A new generation of schools can be exciting places to learn, as in Kingsdale School, south London, refurbished to de Rijke Marsh Morgan’s designs (pictured).
A new generation of schools can be exciting places to learn, as in Kingsdale School, south London, refurbished to de Rijke Marsh Morgan’s designs (pictured).
Yet depressing learning boxes are still thrown up, as at Bishop Challoner Boys School in London Docklands

And although MPs may have difficulty seeing the connection between design and their chances of re-election, the government has a good track record of promoting architectural and Urban Design. It adopted Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce report promoting urban renaissance in 1999, launched a campaign for better public buildings a year later and appointed a minister as architectural champion in each department. Also in 1999, it set up CABE with a wider remit than the old Royal Fine Art Commission and a budget now running at just over £11m a year. The Scottish parliament will follow suit next month when it sets up Architecture and Design Scotland as “the national champion for good architecture, design and planning in the built environment”.

The government’s revised planning legislation, which came into force in January, has entrenched architectural design in the British constitution in a way that should have a big impact at local level. For the first time, the planning rules state that architectural design is a statutory criterion for determining planning permission for development projects. Labour’s Russell, who formally served as planning chair for Chester council, says: “Before, it was almost impossible for local authorities to turn down totally mediocre schemes on design grounds. Now at last they can do that.”

Among backbench MPs and Lords, “interest has certainly grown in the subject since the architecture and planning group was set up in 2000”, according to Russell. “There are 150 members and we have four or five meetings a year, with up to 50 turning up. We’ve had presentations from Lord Rogers, who draws the crowds in, and from several ministers. And 18 months ago we had a very popular seminar in which excellent young architects such as Julia Barfield and Bill Dunster gave innovative ideas on how to solve London’s housing crisis.”

On the local government front, the Bilbao effect – the catalytic effect of Gehry’s amazing Guggenheim Museum on a rundown industrial city – has made its mark on local politicians in the UK. So argues Les Sparks, who as CABE’s regional chairman has done the rounds of local authorities to promote good design. “They can see how successful towns and cities parade exciting new places and buildings, and they aspire to be seen to be doing likewise. It’s quite a change from 10 years or so ago, when councillors were wary of new architecture, and went for pastiche and conservation instead.”

City, district and county councils are all busy rediscovering their civic role by appointing prominent architects, such as Sir Terry Farrell and Piers Gough, as architectural champions to encourage good design. Cities such as Manchester, Gateshead, Portsmouth and now Liverpool have all actively encouraged and partly funded landmark buildings as flag-wavers for their cities. And following on from the transformation of Trafalgar Square by Foster and Partners, the Greater London Authority has embarked on a programme to improve 100 public spaces across the capital.

So with support from national and local government as well as the public at large, are we seeing a new dawn for architecture? Very likely. But then good design is like motherhood and apple pie: everyone supports it. Good architecture that is actually built on the ground – where it really counts – is another matter.

Here Rogers, still chairman of the urban taskforce, is witheringly critical of the government’s strategy – or lack or it – for delivering high-quality urban development. “There is no proper policy framework for design excellence: there are too many organisations, with too little focus on delivering quality,” he wrote in the run-up to the government’s sustainable communities summit in February. “To construct cities around the belief that urban design and the public realm can be considered once land deals, planning policy and economic viability have been settled, is to submit our cities to a form of vandalism from which few will recover.”

Which brings us back to architecture as an election issue. Whichever government inflicts architectural vandalism on our cities, as Rogers alleges, can count on losing votes when the building dust has settled.

What does a Blairist building look like?

Louis XIV is commemorated by a sumptuous palace at Versailles the size of a new town, the post-war Labour government by a rash of pedestrian new towns and Margaret Thatcher by neo-vernacular housing estates and office blocks – or was that Prince Charles? So what sort of architecture will Tony Blair be known for? As we are now into the eighth – and possibly final – year of the Blair era, it’s time to take stock of the architecture that’s been appearing all around us.

New Labour is a designed party and the party of design; imagery is all-important because of its public relations pull, and buildings are not coy about projecting real-life imagery, whether intended by their creators or not. Blair himself has not been slow to the see the potential: he is the first prime minister to set up an annual architectural award scheme and to stamp the prime ministerial imprimatur on it. And as he himself has acknowledged, the gospel of good design is actively spread by another New Labour invention, CABE.

As is evident in five years of Better Public Buildings awards, Blair architecture is breezy, clean-limbed, forward-looking and usually executed in crisp prefabricated modern materials. Covering all types of public buildings, the awards have included the slender bowing arch of the winking bridge in Tyneside, the conversion of a lumbering old power station to London’s temple of modern art and airy, see-through Bournemouth library. Not least, there has been a belated rediscovery of urban design and civic spaces, as in Foster and Partners’ opening up of Trafalgar Square.

Yet as with nearly all PR imagery, the glamorous, award-winning, CABE-encouraged Blair Babes e e of architecture disguise a harsher reality. And that is New Labour’s hard-nosed imperative to drive through new hospitals, schools and most of all housing, while keeping capital costs to a minimum. The PFI – or public development on the never-never – has produced hospitals of unprecedented size and complexity, but with architecture low on the pecking order. And as for the government’s programme to develop 200,000 new homes in the South-east, even Lord Rogers, New Labour’s in-house architect, despairs of any co-ordination of planning, design and development.

The big question is which of these opposing forces will win out. One encouraging sign is that, courtesy of CABE, architecture has at last discovered a new message during the Tony Blair era: good design pays. This is a message that even the hardest-nosed PFI developer can understand.

Gently persuasive: RIBA’s action plan

With the forthcoming election no more than a whiff in the air, the RIBA has launched its election manifesto – the first building industry institution to do so.

Entitled A manifesto for architecture: 21 actions for a better Britain, it steers clear of proclaiming that only architects can save the world – a trap that its 2001 predecessor fell into. Instead it takes a pragmatic but hard-hitting line about the everyday benefits of good architecture. It argues that “good design generates long-term value by improving outcomes, reducing running costs and anticipating future changes in use, technology and demand”.

The manifesto’s 21 proposed actions – not demands – “for designing a better Britain” were whittled down from nearly 150.

The RIBA’s head of public affairs, Stephen Harding, says they were selected and framed according to four key criteria to be relevant to the built environment, achievable, affordable and understandable.

The 21 actions are grouped within four main themes:

  • The theme of “designing for society” includes the action “make government funding conditional upon good design quality”. The same theme also includes “ensure the efficient co-ordination of government involvement in planning, architecture and construction”.

  • The theme of “designing for sustainability” includes the action: “Use the 2007 council tax valuation review to offer discounts for energy efficiency or waste reduction”.

  • “Designing for people” exhorts politicians to “create railway and bus stations that are more welcoming, more convenient, safer and better integrated with their surroundings”.

  • And “designing for efficiency” includes the suggestion “invest in a planning system where planners are valued and equipped with a sound understanding of design”.

Sunand Prasad, chair of the RIBA’s drafting committee, argues that the fact that the individual actions “look humble and pragmatic” was quite deliberate, as most are achievable without new legislation. “But if realised, it will mean a fundamental change for all buildings, all the way down to the local SureStart nursery,” he adds.