Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 4:03 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for initiating the debate, and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on a very interesting maiden speech, which lifted my spirits.

The debate could be more accurately headed, "How to improve the quality of life for all in the United Kingdom"—and do it easily and effectively. Public services are at the very heart of our quality of life in the United Kingdom. We have no alternative but to rely on public services to a greater or lesser degree throughout our lives. Hospitals, the police service and education all impact massively on the way in which we live. The quality and relevance of the service that we receive can determine how we prosper, how we live and how we die.

Although investment and focus clearly are important in helping to make our public services fit for and able to support our 21st-century economy, money and attention are not enough in a world of forever-changing attitudes, values and standards, and even faster-changing technology. Public services need to do more to keep abreast of changing user requirements and new demands.

Business has long recognised that fact. It has recognised the colossal contribution that good design and innovation can make, and the massive impact that they can have on communication and the morale, performance and retention of staff. All that is important to public services. Design also has an impact on product quality and service and, of course, on profitability. Public services should use design in the same way.

The most successful example is the Department of Health, which is currently working with the Design Council on a project to "design out" medical accidents. Other government departments are working with the Design Council to develop new perspectives on old recurring problems. They clearly understand the direct read-across from good design to user satisfaction, but that is not widespread. Why not? What is the down side? It is certainly not the cost, because good and effective design pays for itself, over and again.

If a better designed hospital environment helps to shorten a patient's stay, if it helps patients to retain their dignity and to recover more quickly, and if it frees beds, how much value is there in that? If our criminal population and crime are lowered by reducing the opportunity for theft through designing "crime-resistant" products, what is that worth to us? If simply the clever design of a bus shelter is not only more comfortable and better looking, but can be directly linked to lower crime levels, as it has been in South Yorkshire where I live, that must make design a bargain-basement investment. Design works in schools, too, where well designed lighting, heating, acoustics and furniture have been proved to yield better results.

We have heard already that there is no shortage of design ideas. We in the UK are the largest design workshop in the world, with almost 4,000 design consultancies that employ more than 67,000 people. In fact, last year the British design industry had export earnings of more than £1.4 billion. We lead the world in so many areas of design and have always had a spirit of invention and good ideas, from Harry Beck's London Tube map, which was designed in 1931 and still shows us the way home, to the bioform bra, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead. We can choose from thousands of world-famous projects. British design successes are legend, but not in the public services. If our public services are to have any chance of meeting our growing needs and demands, the implementation of good design is not simply desirable but absolutely essential.

We need actively to encourage more dialogue and closer collaboration between the policy-makers, the manufacturers and the design industry, and we need to do it now. The catalyst to do that already exists in a long-established agency that makes things happen now through design initiatives in both industry and public services. That agency—the Design Council—has been mentioned several times.

The Design Council is currently funded by a DTI grant to the tune of around £7 million per annum—not £70 million, but £7 million per annum. That is small change in a government context, and some might say miserly. With a wall of money descending on the public services at the moment, now is the time to invest in design. Procrastination is not a valid option. Let us involve the best in the design industry and invest creatively.

How we do that does not matter, but the Design Council would be a good, practical starting point. It is in a warm-start position and, if adequately funded, could massively accelerate its aim of helping to turn design ideas into actions. It could accelerate that change and move toward a better quality of life for all in the UK, and achieve that through public services that could be transformed beyond recognition through and by design.