Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 5:07 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, during one of the last warm days of autumn, I took my three children on the riverboat from Greenwich to Westminster. As is the custom, one of the boatmen offered us a running commentary as we went down the river. As we passed the headquarters of the Greater London Authority on our left, he said, "And there, on our left, is the new headquarters of the Greater London Authority. As you can see, it was designed by an under-employed window cleaner".

It was a great honour today to hear from that under-employed window cleaner. I thought that I would tell the noble Lord that story because he has had so much praise today that he should hear at least one word from his critics. It was a great pleasure to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Foster.

My other problem arises from hearing the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. As noble Lords may know, I am one of the revolutionaries concerning reform of this House, and yet, whenever I get out the tumbrels for the hereditaries I think of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and his contribution to this House. Yet again, he has made a major contribution by raising the issue of design, and we are all in his debt for that.

My interest in design originated with my membership of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in another place, then as director-general of the British Retail Consortium in the mid-1980s, and then, since entering this House, becoming associated with the campaigning groups, Anti Copying in Design, known as ACID, and the Federation Against Copyright Theft. Much of their work is about protecting creativity in areas such as music, film and product design, but protecting a good idea and rewarding creativity applies equally to the power and direction of public service procurement.

I agree with the Prime Minister that Britain's future lies in creating a high-skill, high-tech, high value-added economy. But to create and sustain such an economy it is essential that ideas, innovation and design distinctiveness are protected and that the ideas of men and women of innovation are protected by law. That has been one of my interests in the House.

This excellent debate has drawn on the brief produced by the Design Council, which is among my papers. I shall not repeat many of the points that other noble Lords have referred to except to point out that, although it may be a brief for the converted, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said, it would be well worthy of wider distribution, if only to provide the proselytizers of good design with a good document from which to work.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, that design has great importance in ensuring that our public services are taken up. Too many buildings that house organisations which offer help seem to say not "We are here to help" but "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". It is true that good design can make a building appear friendly to people who may be a little cautious about becoming entangled in the bureaucracy of public service.

Throughout the debate various themes have been taken up—for example, how good design can help in the areas of health and education; in sport and leisure, an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, referred; and in tourism. I agree that good signage can be a great help to tourism.

As to housing and housing design in the public sector, I can remember going round a council estate in Southwark with a local councillor 30 years ago, at the beginning of my political career, and him standing there with real pride, looking at the high rise flats and saying, "When I see those high rise flats I see socialism in action". It is worthwhile designers and planners reminding themselves that sometimes they can get it disastrously wrong. Those high rise flats, which were built with such good intentions and such worthy aims, created massive social problems that we have spent many of the past 20 or 30 years trying to repair. In addition to the many virtues advocated today, I urge on the designers and planners a tad of humility.

Another area where public service lateral thinking as regards design can help is in the design of built-in deterrents against theft. Too many products are too easy to steal. There have been exchanges in the House about mobile phones and how slow the companies were in building-in anti-theft devices. Before that, the manufacturers of cars were similarly accused.

There is a whole range of areas in the public service where positive thinking can be of help. We have all learnt something today. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, speak about his hat-stand, my noble friend Lord Rodgers will probably now rush home and take a close look at his Festival of Britain cups and spoons. I recommend that he takes them to the next edition of the "Antiques Roadshow" because he might have some worthwhile heirlooms on his hands.

Like my noble friend Lord Rodgers, I left another place by public demand. One of the nice things about it is that I occasionally get invited back to my old constituency. On 28th March I shall be going back to Stockport to address the Stockport Chamber of Commerce annual dinner and to present prizes at a design award ceremony. The competition, which was sponsored by the Stockport Chamber of Commerce, Stockport Council and the local community, was to redesign the centre of Stockport.

One of the lessons to come through the debate is that end users must be involved in design right from the beginning. I am going back to Stockport with a real sense of pleasure—although slightly fraudulently because it is my membership of the All-Party Design Group which gives me the qualities to present the prizes. As my colleagues know, I have not been renowned in the past for my Armani suits or design consciousness.

The arguments that provoked the competition in Stockport could be rehearsed elsewhere. Good design is a win-win situation. It is a win for the citizen as a taxpayer because, as speaker after speaker has emphasised, good design brings good value. It is a winner for the citizen as the consumer of these services because, again as other noble Lords have emphasised, good design helps the consumer. My Whip is wagging his finger but, if he reads the whip, he will see that I have got 10 minutes. Whips try to control everything.

Finally, as my 10 minutes come up, let me say that good design is good for UK plc. I work with one of the big trade associations—the electrical manufacturers—and it is still in Britain because of the quality of design. Whether in manufacturing or public services, the lesson to be learnt is that design is not the cherry on the cake but the real heart of success.