Tessa Jowell has become the ministerial design champion. Building asks how she can succeed where so many have failed, while Peter Stewart, assesses if government is now wise to design

Five years ago this week, tony blair presided over what was arguably the most prestigious ever gathering of British architectural aristocracy. Present at Number 10 were the two peers, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, as well as knights of the built environment such as Sir Michael Hopkins. They were all there to bear witness to the prime minister’s personal commitment to creating a “step change” in the quality of government-commissioned buildings.

At the climax of the evening, Blair unveiled a report with the rather risky title of Better Public Buildings: A Proud Legacy for the Future. The plan was to introduce ministerial design champions who would ensure that buildings procured by their departments were of a standard – which meant designed by architectural stars. This team was to be chaired by Lord Falconer, and its personnel were to be politicians with an interest in the subject, such as former construction minister Nick Raynsford. Later champions included big hitters such as Brian Wilson and Paul Boateng.

If any of the guests had suspicions the report’s title was counting unhatched chickens, they will by confirmed next week, when the multi-ministerial system is scrapped. It has long been in abeyance – the last meeting of the design champion group was in January 2003 – and at the British Construction Industry Awards next week, culture secretary Tessa Jowell will announce she has been appointed Cabinet-level design champion for all government departments.

Many architects say the previous departmental system, as with many aspects of the Better Public Building proposals, never had the impact the prime minister desired. What Blair’s step change actually amounted to was a small shuffle – albeit in the right direction. “There has been a limited success,” says Sir Stuart Lipton, the former chairman of CABE and an adviser to the ministerial design group. “We’re not going to build great buildings unless we have great aspirations, and that is what we’re missing.”

The fundamental problem with the system was that it was operated by some of the busiest people in Britain. They had somehow to find the time and energy to understand the world of construction, with its multiple agendas, complexities and frustrations. Architect Richard Saxon saw the system in action when he was head of Building Design Partnership, which won the Better Public Building award in 2003 for a PFI library in Bournemouth. “It all depends on the individual minister,” he says.

On top of that, it was not often clear who the ministerial design champions were or what specific responsibilities they held. Saxon points out that the Department of Health didn’t commission its own projects – they were procured by the local trusts. His solution to the problem is for the RIBA to appoint design advisers to work with trusts and local education authorities.

This is not what the government is planning. Jowell’s responsibilities have not been finalised, but she will essentially take over the work of the design champions. Combined with her new role as Olympics minister, she has the potential power to bring about the step change that Blair spoke of five years ago. But as Lipton points out, Jowell has to be a strong leader to push this higher up the agenda. “If you go to Bilbao or Sydney, one project has rejuvenated the whole city. We could have that if people take it seriously enough. Perhaps we just don’t have the leadership for it.”

Now, what are the chances that Jowell can make him eat those words?

Three of the more notable design champions: left to right, Lord Falconer, former construction minister Brian Wilson and Paul Boateng

Three of the more notable design champions: left to right, Lord Falconer, former construction minister Brian Wilson and Paul Boateng

How to get better buildings


Regarding good design as an optional extra
Central government makes the right noises, but many public sector clients still don’t understand what is meant by good design – and CABE and the design champions haven’t succeeded in explaining it to them.

Treating lowest cost as best value
Not much progress here. Although clients pay lip service to this slogan, the bean-counters have their own – buildings must be ‘affordable’.

Procuring on the basis of capital cost rather than whole-life cost
This is something the PFI was meant to be good at. But go round a new hospital and decide for yourself whether materials and finishes, inside and outside, have been chosen with an eye to whole-life costs.

Ignoring the civic significance of public buildings
Many public sector clients have got this message, and tender documentation reflects this.

Being frightened to take calculated risks
The PFI was presented as a way for the cautious public sector to tap into the flair of the private sector. This hasn’t worked – bidders with a will to be creative are put off by the risk of being deemed non-compliant with project documentation, and by financiers for whom the 25-year contract is a tradable commodity that has to be as blue-chip as possible.

Assuming that the public does not care
Until recently ministers have probably calculated that the public are easily satisfied – as they were at the time by 1960s council estates. More recently, some have spotted that voters may realise they are being palmed off with some pretty tatty projects.


Insisting that the choice of designer is reviewed by the design champion
As mediocre projects are still winning out over good ones, this can’t be working.

Promoting high-quality design on PFI projects in line with Treasury Note 7
The guide referred to has been overtaken by better documents from CABE, the Office of Government Commerce and, importantly, the National Audit Office, which has explicitly recognised the contribution good design can make to value for money.

Supporting local authorities who apply good architectural and urban design standards
Awarding a tick here is generous, but the Better Public Buildings programme has been one significant way in which this happens, and it does generate decent media coverage every year.

Encouraging planning authorities to insist on appropriately high design standards
There’s no planning guidance that says “give PFI projects an easy ride” – but this is what happens. Few planning officers or committees have the stomach to turn down poor designs knowing they will be accused of standing in the way of desperately needed facilities.

Allowing enough design time for projects of real quality to emerge
“Get it built in time for the next election” seems to be the priority for schools and hospitals, yet we’ve waited decades for the programme now under way, and we will live with the results for decades to come.

Measuring efficiency and waste in construction
This has always sounded like enlightened self-interest for contractors, and the best of the bunch are doing it. Most, though, aren’t – have you noticed less waste on building sites you’ve passed recently?

Appointing integrated teams focusing on the whole-life impact and performance of a development
Some exemplary projects, such as last year’s Better Public Building winner, the Bingley Relief Road, have demonstrated integrated team working. But most of the time, insufficient thought is given to whole-life issues.

Encouraging longer-term relationships with integrated project teams, subject to rigorous performance review
This is happening more, with the encouragement of framework agreements and the like.

Using whole-life costing in the value-for-money assessment of buildings
Whole-life costing – yes. Whole-life value is something different.

Ensuring there is single-point client responsibility for any given project, with authority.
This remains rare

Seen in the round, there has been progress in public building procurement over five years. But who was the advice in Better Public Buildings intended for? Not design teams – we have to hope they want to do the right thing already. Nor is it really for contractors or bidders – they just want clear briefs and parameters to bid within. It’s the public sector clients who have to take responsibility. A great deal of good advice is now available – from CABE, the OGC, the NAO and others. Most project documentation now says the right things about design aspirations, and most projects have design champions. But I don’t think most bidders think that the clients’ hearts are in it. They calculate, usually correctly, that a cheap bid will trump a great design.