Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Wakeham Lord Wakeham Conservative 3:35 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for initiating this debate, as it is an important subject.

I was the Minister responsible for the Design Council about 20 years ago, and I remember those days well. The situation then was that good design was always spoken of as important but never given enough importance in practice. It was somewhat similar to a publishing and purchasing policy for which I also had some responsibility around that time. As an ex-Treasury Minister, I accept that some of the blame remained with the Treasury, but that is not the whole story.

We produce many of the best designers in the world, but at that time far too many of them went overseas to work. The constant complaint to me from leading designers was that too many of the top people had financial skills but knew absolutely nothing about design. There was a lot of truth in that accusation, but in my view the fault is not on both sides. Part of my purpose today is to hear from the Minister how we have moved on in the past 20 years.

For every business manager who knew nothing about design, there was a designer who knew nothing about finance. They simply did not speak the same language. A key of good design is that it is sometimes wise not to accept the lowest price on offer. Many times the lowest price is the right choice, but the cheapest is not always the best. Taking something well designed or building up a long-term relationship with a supplier may be more expensive in the short run but cheaper in the long run. Those who know about design need to persuade those who make decisions to take a wider view.

I detect that we may have made some progress over the past 20 years and we still have a long way to go, but the Design Council can take a lot of credit. However, that organisation's website shows that too much of its material is designed to appeal to those who are already converted and accept the basic concepts of good design. That is important for the Design Council, which must remain at the forefront of progress, but there is another more basic job to do. The Design Council must get across to a large majority of the slightly cynical mass of managers that good design is a vital part of any investment appraisal.

Put simply, we need good designers but we also need financial managers who are better aware of the importance of good design. My experience taught me that one cannot take everything that they say at face value. In my day there were, and I suspect there still are, too many managers who publicly called for design and were strong advocates of it but who did not in practice, when making decisions, live up to their word.

I have not come to this debate to criticise or to complain but to find out how, in this important area, the messages that I was trying to get across 20 years ago have made progress. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.