Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 4:48 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I, too, commend the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. His family's ancestral courage is well known, but the personal imaginativeness of the subjects which he chooses to bring before your Lordships' House for debate deserves separate praise. He has also on this occasion given us the opportunity to hear the notable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, referred to 19th century prisons. There is a great continuity in our affairs. I mention the prison that Bentham built—the Millbank Penitentiary, where the Tate now stands. Not for nothing was he a utilitarian. Five prisoners were lodged in a group of cells but there were washing facilities for all of them from the start. Judge Tumim could not have approved more.

I declare an interest as a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art. My own speech will be idiosyncratic and telegraphic. My greatest luck in public life was to be the Minister to issue the guidance to the Lottery distributors that they should consider the architectural quality of the applications put before them. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, for his kind reference to another initiative in my time.

Others have quoted the Design Council report. In the spirit of the quotation given by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, the observation in the report that the input of end users is most valuable at the start of the process, before the designs have been made and before the cost of change grows prohibitively high, was the story of how Japanese ship-building took over the world.

My father's philosophy tutor became the controller of metals during World War II. My father asked what his qualifications were and he said, "They are two. The first is that I am trained to ask questions—there are a large number of questions to ask in the context of metals. The second is that everyone else in metals has an emotional involvement in particular metals like wolfram and tungsten, but I have no emotional involvement in any of them". The creation of a post within Government with the oriental title "The Great Questioner" would do design a great favour.

I was lucky enough to attend a school founded in 1843 where, around a fine early 18th century house, the governors employed Blore, Street—I spent four years in a boarding house designed by Street who put concrete into a domestic building for the first time—Norman Shaw, Bodley, Comper, Aston Webb and WG Newton whose science laboratories were among the 50 first 20th century buildings to be listed. There was even a Waterhouse cricket pavilion, perhaps his only one, which the school has just restored to Waterhouse's original design. The child is father to the man and these things teach one what is possible.

One of the earliest boys to attend the school—in the school's first five years—was William Morris. It is interesting to note that what made the most impression on him during his school days was Avebury seven miles away. I remark that Avebury is essentially a public sector artefact.

From that school I also took away the recognition that people behave as a result of the way in which they are treated—whether it is listed blocks of council flats in Pimlico, the design of the legendary Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, with its academic success, or the new Jubilee Line stations that won the buildings of the year prize, competing, coincidentally, in the small change of today's debate, against a bus shelter in Scotland.

To draw on Waterhouse's cricket pavilion, I shall add to the list of design successes in the public services. I cite topically the English Cricket Board's use of the national curriculum, initially to design coursework and teaching aids based on cricket—arithmetic, geometry and physics come first to mind—but more subliminally to get school children interested in cricket as well.

Thirty-five years ago I called on the enlightened managing director of a public but smallish company in the Black Country who had just sent a new appointee to his board on a three-month sabbatical all around Europe to refresh himself and to look at recent capital investments by industrial companies. I ask the Minister how far that example is followed in the public sector today.

All of that said, we should not rely blindly on innovation. I saw the Nottinghamshire County Council's winning exhibit at the Milano Biennale in the winter of 1960 of a CLASP prefabricated school, and I flushed with national pride. But 25 years later I was a DES Minister when the CLASP schools all needed renewal at the same time.

Finally, a cheering coincidence. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, in 1961 I furnished my first office from the Design Council's design index. On that index was only one hatstand. I loyally and blindly bought it. The other day I was in Bond Street where the Fine Arts Society was selling a Charles Rennie Mackintosh hatstand for £35,000. In life, as in the Bible, the bread that one casts upon the waters comes back after many days.