Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 3:57 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, and to say how honoured we all are to have such a distinguished architect and designer in our midst. Although no one is predicting that we shall follow the Germans with a new parliamentary building as part of our reforms, we could be sure that the design would be in good hands with the noble Lords, Lord Foster, Lord Rogers of Riverside, and perhaps with the noble Lord, Lord Freyburg, contributing some modern sculpture.

The noble Lord, Lord Foster, was educated at Burnage Grammar School, Manchester University School of Architecture and Yale University School of Architecture. His career has been in private practice. He has pioneered new structures, collaborating with Buckminster Fuller. Noble Lords will have seen the gherkin rising in the City and Stansted and will have some idea of their origins.

He has set up a world famous practice. His buildings have enlivened our cities and helped the United Kingdom to develop a more design conscious society. He has received many awards, prizes and fellowships from Europe and the United States, from academies and universities. As a professor at University College London I am pleased to say that he has been a visiting professor at Bartlett School of Architecture there. His books describe beautifully his marvellous buildings. He even has time for his recreations of flying, ski-ing and running.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, on initiating this debate on such an important topic. I also thank the Design Council, which has produced a useful package of information for it. My own experience in this area is that I ran a rather high profile government agency, the Meteorological Office, where we had many discussions on design and presentation. The chief executive's view was seldom listened to. That is because we listened to designers.

As with any government agency there were the more mundane aspects; for example, rather dilapidated buildings in remote Scottish islands, which are also part of the public service domain. The important point that I wish to make is that there have been very considerable improvements in the culture and application of design in the public service since the 1970s. As a cynic, one might say that the advertising world has had a more beneficial influence on government than it has on politics, in that respect. Certainly, the world of government is more design conscious.

I should like to focus a few remarks on the importance of environmental design, which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, emphasised. Perhaps one of the most important features is that good design must be fundamental and not merely an afterthought. My noble friend Lord Rogers, who regrettably could not be here today, said that environmental design was not just a question of green lipstick, which is rather a vivid expression.

I shall give an example. An element of design in Britain that is a bit of a scandal where environment and design could come together is noise barriers. One sees the most remarkable noise barriers in France and Germany. They are extremely important to communities as we increase our roads, and the efforts in this country are absolutely woeful.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, mentioned, buildings are extremely important. Design and science must be brought together, so that designers and people involved in building regulations work together. At a conference in London recently, it was realised that the architecture profession was perhaps not as much at the forefront of pushing the agenda forward as it should be.

Design does not relate only to hard matter; it also affects landscapes. My wife is a landscape architect, so I hear a lot about that. Perhaps one of the triumphs of design is the good design now being applied to restoring historic landscapes, with the help of the Millennium Fund. It leads to tremendous tourism. The most widely advertised posters on the Underground may be those that concern Hampton Court and its new design. Landscape design is also extremely important on housing estates. For example, by investing in better landscape design, Peterborough was able to reduce vandalism considerably. Other noble Lords have commented about design being important in reducing waste.

Government managers or chief executives of government agencies will be under considerable pressure from the Treasury or their government departments to reduce their budgets, or to be as efficient as possible. Therefore, it is very important that there be as much encouragement as possible from the centre for managers to consider good design. As other noble Lords have said, the cheapest design may not be the best. It is important that agencies and departments should use a business case with a design element in their decision making.

The framework documents of agencies should include the need to use good design, both in terms of their own activities and those of their contractors. I hope that the Minister will explain how the best practice is being developed to ensure those vital needs.