Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat 3:39 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I greatly enjoyed the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, in both its spirit and substance. I wait with keen anticipation what the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, will say in his maiden speech. He is a shining star of architecture world-wide. We look forward to his speech.

Almost 50 years ago I walked into the newly-opened Design Centre in Haymarket and it was a revelation. It was an outcome of the Festival of Britain. I was greatly impressed by the products on show. My wife and I were newly-married and we looked for our essential domestic utensils. We bought them from the shops when they were available. We still have some of those cups, saucers, knives and forks that we saw in the Design Centre.

As names are so easily forgotten, I pay tribute to Gordon Russell and Paul Reilly who brought energy and flair to the Council of Industrial Design and to the nation. It made a permanent impact on those times. Together with the Consumers' Association and Which? magazine, they led a consumer revolution in what was becoming an affluent society. At least, that was my lay view because I had not been involved in design or manufacturing.

Then, almost 20 years ago, the voters of Stockton-on-Tees lost their enthusiasm for me and, in due course, in 1987 I became director-general of the Royal Institute of British Architects. So for the first time I began to reflect on the design of buildings, including buildings serving the public.

As a Minister I had not thought much about the role of architecture in the public estate. I was involved in the planning of a new headquarters building for the Ministry of Defence, including its location, its cost and the transfer of staff, but I never raised the question of design, nor did my civil servants offer any such advice.

Good public sector clients usually appointed good architects and good architects achieved good public architecture. But new, countervailing factors in the late 1980s and early 1990s began to damage the role of high quality design. The first was the growth of design and build (usually a misnomer) and, secondly, compulsory competitive tendering (CCT). The aim was to reduce costs by diminishing the primary role of the architect as designer, thus putting price before value. Later, a third factor emerged with the arrival of the private finance initiative (PFI) which would further diminish the role of the architect.

Then, rather to my surprise, soon after 1997 the new government decided that design could lead to better public buildings. With the Prime Minister's personal support, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was set up and Sir Stuart Lipton, a hard-headed property developer, was appointed. Despite some scepticism and little initial enthusiasm on the part of most Whitehall departments, it has since vigorously campaigned for high quality design. Already CABE has helped to change the mood of all those deeply concerned about the environment.

That is all good news but I have three principal concerns. First, it is probable that the PFI will diminish the design factor in the complicated equation of construction. As the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, mentioned, the recent Audit Commission report has said that early PFI schools are not significantly better. All the pressures, including the Government's own PFI ideology, point the wrong way.

Secondly, despite good intentions, guidance on improving standards of design in the procurement of public buildings falls short of instructions. I hope that operational guidance on the procurement of public buildings will be acted upon and that performance will be monitored.

Thirdly—this is wholly relevant to this very welcome debate—I hope that CABE and the architectural dimension in the public sector will be cross-party. It is right for the Government to claim credit for these developments. I welcome the Prime Minister's award for better public buildings. But if we are to have better public buildings from one generation to another, there must be a sustained campaign that will endure from one government to another.