Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:42 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour 4:42 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, when thinking of what to say in this debate, I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that the word "design", simply as a noun, has eight definitions. Number five was,

"a crafty contrivance or hypocritical scheming".

I am afraid that for some design—or perhaps lack of design—that definition may occasionally be apposite.

I was much helped in preparing these remarks by the recent short document published by the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, referred to by a number of noble Lords. On the very first page, the results of a MORI poll show that 81 per cent of the population are interested in how the built environment looks and feels. Even more people—85 per cent—agree that better quality buildings improve the quality of people's lives.

Those findings, which show such a high awareness among the general public, perhaps explain some of the other positive research findings in the report. One has been given by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. Another is a study by the University of Nottingham, which found that in a cardiology ward which had been fitted with improved lighting, better external views and other improvements, patients' blood pressure and pulse rates were significantly lower and post-operative stays came down from 11 to eight days.

My own medical practice moved into a newly built health centre in the mid-1970s. It was in advance of its time and had carefully thought-out plans to enhance joint working between doctors, nurses and other primary care team members. At the planning stage, there was much discussion between the staff who were going to use the building and the architect. However, due to cost-cutting during construction, the fabric of the building began to fail at an early stage so that now, 30 years later, it is having to be extensively rebuilt. That is an example of how skimping on building costs, despite a good conceptual design, can lead to greater expense in the long term.

On my way to my home in East Sussex, I often pass the remarkable development known as "BedZED"—the Beddington Zero Energy Development—in the borough of Sutton. This is a high-density housing project of around 100 homes. It is immediately arresting because of the brightly coloured wind-driven, heat-exchanging ventilators, which swivel on the roofs—a system rather similar to that used in Portcullis House.

There are many other novel features—many more than I can describe—including a small biofuel combined heat and power unit. Energy consumption in the dwellings is only 10 per cent of that in a comparable traditional dwelling. That 10 per cent of energy is produced on site. The project was developed by the Peabody Trust to the design of architect Bill Dunster who first tried out the design concepts when building his own house. It is a superb example of good design and environmental conservation, and the cost of building it was no greater than that of a conventional housing development.

Like other noble Lords, I want to refer briefly to the Audit Commission's report on PFI in schools. It shows that, of the 10 traditional and eight PFI schools studied by the Building Research Establishment, the PFI schools were, on average, worse in all five aspects of design quality used. However, to be fair, one PFI school was commended. Its quality may have been high because the head teacher was involved in the project negotiation from the start. It is a key feature of a successfully designed building that the eventual user, who may not be the commissioning agent, should be involved from the start.

The summary of the final chapter comments:

"There is a strong case for changing capital funding incentives to enable options other than the PFI to be pursued equally advantageously".

It was very audacious of the Audit Commission to give advice to the Treasury. But surely the main reason for using PFI in the first place was to shift the burden of raising capital from the public to the private sector and, thus, the debt incurred would not appear on the Government's balance sheet. But the debt is still there, of course, and it costs the public considerably more to service than a state-secured loan. In addition, as the report shows, the product that results may be less suitable, of inferior quality and have higher maintenance costs. All that is because of an inflexible Treasury rule not to increase visible public sector borrowing.

Good design may initially cost a little more in time and thought, although not necessarily in money. But the end result is more pleasing to the eye and more efficient, costs less to maintain and is kinder to the environment.