Stepping down after seven years as a CABE commissioner, Sunand Prasad has plenty of advice about how to make a success of the job.
Above all, he says, you have to have a mission. He needn't have worried: his successor, planner Joyce Bridges, has already begun her crusade - and she isn't even in the post yet. Portrait by Tom Harford Thompson.
Both are seasoned players in their own fields but one is on his way out, the other on her way in. Departing is architect Sunand Prasad after seven years of service as commissioner and founding member of CABE. Arriving is Joyce Bridges, one of a new breed of board member for the architecture watchdog.
Bridges, an English Heritage commissioner, chair of the EH London advisory committee and a planner, who, CABE is at pains to point out, has wide experience of central government. She has held director-level posts in the ODPM's urban policy unit and has been head of planning and housing at the Government Office for the South-east.
Yesterday's man and tomorrow's woman have come together to talk to Building. It is not the first time they've met, in fact, Bridges has been part of what she describes as "the CABE extended family" for more than five years. But this is their first meeting since she was appointed to the inner circle.
Although she doesn't begin her job until August, Bridges says she has been invited to the commissioners' meeting next month and will be attending a tour of the Olympics site. April is also when Bridges and the two other new commissioners will be paired up with one of the three outgoing members as part of a new shadowing policy at CABE. Although Bridges is likely to be assigned fellow planner Les Sparks, Prasad is still keen to offer a few tips. "This is a quango with a pretty all-hands-on-deck attitude," he explains. "I would say find a project that you passionately believe in, bring it to the rest of the board and then fully commit to it. The sooner you have a mission, an idea to make your own, the better the organisation will work. Identify what needs changing because CABE's about change."
Prasad has certainly brought his fair share of burning issues to the board, with varying degrees of success. He was responsible for bringing "enabling" to CABE. This is a free advice service for public sector clients that he chaired for three years, and hired Joanna Averley, a rising star, to head.
But he is disappointed with the industry's response to what he argues were two landmark reports into the position of ethnic minorities studying and working in the built environment. "The reports don't seem to have gathered momentum in the industry," he says. "People are not rising to the challenge."
Prasad is also forthright when discussing the biggest scandal to hit CABE in recent years: chairman Sir Stuart Lipton's resignation over allegations of conflict of interest in 2004. Prasad said: "In reality, there was no question of anything improper but the way the world is people were eager to perceive conflict. It was extremely wrong for him to go - he left prematurely. People wanted to see Stuart fall but now there are procedures in place to stop that happening again."
The priority for Bridges is to address how the industry can meet growing demand for housing output while maintaining a high quality of design. This is very much the priority of CABE chair Jon Sorrell, too. Without wanting to sound patronising, Bridges points out that clients and the public need "upskilling". Prasad fervently agrees.
Bridges explains: "The real challenge now is translating everything CABE knows into quality houses on the ground. How to roll this out to housebuilders, developers and the rest. In housing market renewal areas, the quality is not what it should be. Why is that? Is there a failure in local authorities? Are they lacking in skills, confidence, political clout?"
Bridges also has decided views on public space. She says: "The whole question of the quality of public space is something that really bugs me. CABE Space is doing great things with parks but I'm really struck by the degraded quality of our public realm. We don't have to have substandard streets. I think we have a long way to go to make the public realm in this country as good as it should be."
Some would argue that Bridges' appointment epitomises the "new CABE": a body that is less about outspoken characters championing the cause of architecture and more about yes men getting down to the nitty-gritty of delivering on the ground.
Bridges recognises that she has been appointed because of her government experience but does not see this as being in conflict with CABE's remit. She points out that understanding how government functions can be useful to CABE, since it has to deal with spending reviews and advising ministers.
Prasad is keen to point out that his generation of commissioners has upset a few ministers along the way. "We have to walk the tightrope between government and independence," he says, "and it is difficult at times. But commissioners need to be bold and outspoken and impatient. You need people who are really keen to change things."
Who’s in, who’s out?
Joyce Bridges the chair of English Heritage’s London advisory committee and former director-level post at the ODPM’s urban policy unit MJ Long a partner at architectural practice Long & Kentish and a member of CABE’s design review panel since 2002
Lorna Walker a former director at Arup and member of Richard Rogers’ urban taskforce
Sunand Prasad founder of Penoyre & Prasad and RIBA vice-president for policy and strategy Les Sparks former director of architecture and planning at Birmingham council and chair of a joint English Heritage/CABE urban panel
Sir Nicholas Serota director of Tate Gallery and inaugural member of the Culture Strategy Group for London
CABE’s new appointees will take up their posts in August 2006. The three they replace have all served on the commission since it was established in 1999. The new appointees bring the number of women on the board up from three to six out of 16. Deyan Sudji, director of the Design Museum, is also joining the board and will be shadowing Paul Finch, CABE’s deputy chair.