Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:36 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Chorley Lord Chorley Crossbench 4:36 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on the masterly way in which he has addressed a complex and extremely broad subject.

In the short time that I have to speak, I want to touch, first, on the importance of teaching good design in schools and, more particularly, art colleges. I draw attention to the work of the Royal Society of Art and its student design awards scheme, which attracts more than 3,000 entries a year. The RSA increasingly sees its role as helping to set the agenda for design colleges by bringing in fresh new thinking. I find it rather refreshing that this ancient body, whose full title is the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, should be so active in promoting new ideas.

The RSA drew attention to some worrying trends. The huge increase in student numbers has resulted in a dramatic change in student:staff ratios. That, in turn, has led to a loss in the quality of teaching. The RSA questions whether it can retain its pre-eminent position in design education. Sadly I do not have the time to mention its consequential observations.

I turn to buildings. About 10 years ago the Royal Fine Arts Commission published an admirable study called, What makes a good building?. Incidentally, the study was commissioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, when he was the Culture Secretary. The final words of that excellent report are as follows:

"To achieve a good building requires a good brief, a good client and a good architect . . . It is not a simple matter, and requires great effort and passionate commitment".

I think that we had the passionate commitment from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, in his masterly maiden speech.

I want to talk about the brief and the client—the procurement process. My first point has already been made, but it is worth repeating that research both at home and abroad shows that investment in good design generates economic and social value. This is not a novel point among professionals, but decision-makers, such as the Treasury, often tend to forget it. If I have time, I may come back to that issue.

Sir Stuart Lipton, who has already been mentioned by a number of speakers, the chairman of the RFAC's successor body, the Commission for Architecture and the Building Environment—CABE—reminds us that the Government are now embarking on the most significant building programme since the 1960s. Therefore, the stakes have been upped and the procurement process becomes all important. In the same piece, where he spoke about the big spending ahead of us, Sir Stuart Lipton was fairly scathing about some of our new buildings.

I want to touch on one or two consequential issues. First—again, the point has already been made but I repeat it—how can we ensure good design in PFI contracts, or, to put it the other way round, how can we design the form of PFI contracts so that good design is ensured?

Secondly, how can the Treasury, for example, be made to understand that building economics on the basis of lifetime costs is far more efficient and better than the normal Treasury regime of the initial cash budget approach? Of course, the Treasury denies that. It says that we have manuals on how to proceed with such matters, but, when the chips are down, it is cash that matters.

Thirdly, how do we prevent what I call "design degradation", which usually comes about when endeavouring to economise on detailing or qualities of finish—for example, door knobs and so on—when budget problems arise during construction? I draw attention to the issue but have no time to go into it.

Fourthly, how can we encourage the participation of innovative small sub-contractors; for example, in relation to furniture and furnishings and so on? The red tape of the billing process can constitute a crippling overhead.

It is so easy to identify the problems and so difficult to find solutions. In brief, how do we train and educate our officials not only in the virtues of good design but in identifying, and distinguishing between, good and bad? I believe that the answer is to educate and train officials at—I emphasise—all levels.

I must conclude. I should have liked to link building design to urban planning. But, again, the noble Lord, Lord Foster, took us down that path and spoke in his outstanding maiden speech far better and with far more authority than I could have done.