Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour 3:45 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who, as most of us know, is a skilled practitioner in sculpture. Sculpture is to my mind one of the most attractive and satisfying of the visual arts because of its three dimensional aspect.

I believe that design, whether it be design of objects or furniture or design of the internal and external layout of buildings of all kinds, or, indeed, the design of whole districts and cities, can enhance immeasurably our ability to work and function effectively and, indeed, the whole environment in which we live. To my mind, good design is not just a joy in itself.

Design is as old as civilisation itself. In creating today's public buildings and their layout and content, I believe that design is as vital to the purposes and functions of those buildings as it was in the creation of a Greek temple or a Roman palazzo. The Design Council, of which the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, is a distinguished member, has published a useful briefing paper for this debate. Reference has already been made, both by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and by my noble friend Lord Pendry, to the neatly alliterative phrase of the Prime Minister when he referred to the importance of design in satisfying users whether they be patients, parents, pupils or passengers. I believe that he also referred to victims of crime. I should like to mention passengers and victims of crime.

Foreign visitors to London comment frequently most favourably on the design of our taxis and, indeed, of our buses. Not long ago I was about to take my wife home after an orthopaedic operation and asked the hospital to order us a taxi, knowing that the back of a taxi is splendidly designed for ample luggage and, indeed, for putting one's legs straight out without having to bend them. We were somewhat dismayed when we realised that the hospital had an arrangement with a minicab firm. A small saloon arrived that was completely useless for the purposes in hand because of the small amount of room in the back.

The design of our buses has gradually been improved and adapted over the years, especially for driver-only operation, although they could do with further change to facilitate the carriage of disabled passengers. There is always a great outcry whenever that is mentioned because of the expense that might be involved. But sometimes it is important to put in order of preference comfort and convenience on the one hand and expense on the other. I think in particular of how the design of some of our train carriages has, far from improving, declined. I am, unfortunately for myself, a frequent traveller on Thames Trains. They have become typically poor in terms of design for luggage space, seating and lavatories. The Design Council states in its briefing paper:

"Britain has a wealth of expertise in transport design".

Indeed, but, sadly, good design aimed at comfort and convenience of passengers often seems forced into second place against the demands of economy.

Economy class seating in aircraft has been a subject of debate many times in this House and I need not worry your Lordships about it. Noble Lords will well know that for long-haul flights in particular the space between rows has been limited and reduced. I fear that it is not only a matter of inconvenience but also perhaps of risk to one's health. I believe that passengers are a good deal less impressed by those changes—they are often referred to as design improvements—in the liveries and logos of transport companies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, once graphically demonstrated in relation to British Airways, than by changes that can be brought about to enhance comfort.

Because of the time factor, I shall not go into the matter of the victims of crime. I believe that noble Lords would agree in general terms that, whether it be the layout of council estates, referred to by my noble friend, or car parks, although a great deal has been done, even more could be done to ensure greater safety for the possible victims of thieves and drug dealers.