Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative 5:17 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for several things; first, for having introduced the debate; secondly, for himself having introduced it so well; thirdly, for having introduced a debate which has caused so many excellent, interesting and different speeches to be made; fourthly, as my noble friend Lord Brooke said, for giving us an opportunity publicly to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Thames Bank, on his excellent maiden speech; and, fifthly, for his adventurous spirit in introducing a debate that is more about ideas than anything tangible. It is true that the ideas have to be linked with discipline and experience, as many noble Lords have said, but the whole concept is very interesting.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I looked up the definition of "design" in the dictionary. The definition I came up with is completely different from his—I did not notice that there were seven others—and states:

"The art of producing plans, sketches or concepts"—

I emphasise the word "concepts"—

"for the making or production of a building, machine, garment or other object".

I stress the word "concept" because the Design Council, of which the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, is a member, in its brief for the debate, attaches the word "design" not only to physical objects such as I have described but to much more abstract matters.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and the House will forgive me if I do not attempt to deal with the philosophical concepts of design—other noble Lords have spoken to that issue. It will be easier for me if I speak to the more tangible purposes and the need for good, better physical design.

My personal approach to the tangible nature of design is best expressed by the well-known quotation, to which I am glad no one else has referred today because I do not want to feel that I am repeating other noble Lords, from the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is generally summarised as:

"If a man build a better mousetrap . . . the world will beat a path to his door".

One of my own experiences of the effect of better design was an advertisement, which many noble Lords may remember, from 25 years ago when a company introducing tea used a very elegant-looking teapot. I do not know how much tea the company sold but it was said at the time that thousands of the teapots practically walked off the shelves. I still have one that I use today.

"Design" is not simply about building a better, better-looking or more efficient mousetrap. It is about finding what is sometimes described as a gap in the market, discovering an unfulfilled need and devising the means of filling it. It was so interesting to hear different people's experiences. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, talked about having to design things differently for the older person. Like the noble Lord, Lord Chan, I cannot open that wretched thing for pills that is supposed to be safe for children. Everything has had to change considerably. So discovering an unfulfilled need and devising the means of filling it is very interesting and worth while.

I remember my first experience of using a mobile phone—it was during an election in 1984. It was a great big heavy thing; you had to carry around heavy batteries because the thing never lasted long before it needed charging up again. I did not think that it was much use, but today, mobile phones are light and tiny. The only thing you need is good eyesight so that you can see the numbers. However, you can do all sorts of things such as sending text messages and photographs. I have just learnt to do that, which is why I mentioned it—I would not have done so otherwise.

A new world-wide industry, of vast economic significance, has developed because of the improved design of the equipment and the technology which, within a generation or so, will make the public phone booth as obsolete as the gas lamp which, in turn, disappeared as a result of the introduction of the better designed, more efficient and less labour-intensive electric lamp standard.

It is clear that design is not limited to making objects better; it is also about bringing into existence more efficient and functional objects. Perhaps this is what the Design Council means when it talks about producing environments for people to work in that are more pleasant or promote more efficient operations—or, preferably, both.

Britain has long been a leader in design in every aspect of invention or in the delivery of services. The Moscow underground may be something of great beauty, but the London Underground map is a classic of design that has stood the test of decades. It has survived the introduction of several additional subway lines and is a model of clarity for locals and foreigners who need to find their way around. In fact, as my noble friend Lord Kirkham mentioned, that is especially so when we compare it with the maps of the Paris Metro or the New York subway. I do not want to be rude to them, but they resemble plates of spaghetti.

The London Underground map is an outstanding case of design improving public service. It also shows that good design can be timeless. In my former business, I used a machine for filling envelopes with forms and literature which is still used to this day. I was amazed to find that the machine that I used was designed in 1906. Apart from adjusting the use of simple knobs rather than complicated nuts and screws it was, in effect, exactly the same. Similarly, the qwerty keyboard, on which I typed my notes today, has served English-speaking typists throughout the world for almost 100 years.

It is beyond argument that well designed schools and classrooms are just as essential for encouraging learning and good teaching as well designed text books, while old-fashioned, decrepit classrooms encourage slovenly habits among the pupils.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Gavron, I am moving on rather quickly, as time is passing and much of what I was going to say has been said.

In a series of searching Written Questions in another place last summer and autumn, the honourable Member for Stourbridge elicited the information that although the Department for Education and Skills had one of the ministerial design champions, it had not sponsored a single project—at least, not as at 26th February 2002.

By contrast, it is a totally different story at the Department of Health. Research has come up with the fairly obvious conclusion, which many noble Lords have mentioned today, that medical treatment is better and recovery quicker in a pleasant, well designed hospital than in one that resembles a Victorian workhouse.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is the ministerial design champion for the Department of Health. Scouring through a series of Written Answers, I see that he is commendably mentoring four National Health Service schemes in central Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and Walsall. To its credit, the Department of Health employs 47 chartered surveyors, 14 architects and four town planners in addition to outside specialist expertise. When someone who knows what to do harnesses that knowledge with whoever is to design a project, that makes it so much better.

Public transport is another important matter, particularly the objective of persuading more people to use it rather than their cars. I suspect that penal taxes will not be the answer. Instead, getting people to abandon their cars and use public transport needs an adequate number of buses and trains, running with adequate frequency and on schedule. No less important is that those buses and trains should be well designed and comfortable. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, made similar comments when he was talking about the design of trains and being packed in like sardines. That is hopeless—who wants to use that as an alternative to a comfortable car?

I give credit, however, to the Civil Service for the efforts that it has conspicuously made over many years to redesign many of the forms that it sends us for a variety of purposes, so that they are clearer and easier to fill in by members of the public. The noble Lord, Lord Gavron, mentioned that as well. Doubtless, they are better because it is probably easier for computers to read them, but it is very important none the less.

The debate has shown that there is a consensus in favour of good design, not just for aesthetic reasons but for sound, commercial and environmental reasons, and in the interests of efficiency, delivering essential public services. I shall be very interested, as I am sure all your Lordships will be, in hearing the thoughts that the Government have to offer, not in the form of general platitudes or talk about more departmental design champions, but indicating what active steps they are taking to encourage good design in every field in which the Government, as the font of all public services, have an interest.