Sunday, 27 February 2011

What hope for CABE redux?

In a few weeks, old CABE disappears and its successor begins work as part of the Design Council. What are the prospects for the new arrangement, and how will the politics work?

When CABE was started in 1999, its support came from the Government's Culture department, DCMS, which had sponsored CABE's predecessor the Royal Fine Art Commission. DCMS has remained CABE's primary sponsor, but as the years have gone by, it has received progressively more funding from what is now the Communities department, DCLG, responsible for planning, housing etc. - the two funding sources reflecting architecture's uneasy siting, as far as tidy minded administrators are concerned, somewhere between fine art and the provision of useful shelter.

The Design Council's links are with yet another department, the Business department, headed by Vince Cable. This could make a significant difference in the way new CABE will relate to its political (pay)masters.

The DCMS is way down the Whitehall pecking order, which has always made it difficult for CABE to get its voice heard in government. DCLG is a bit more important in the scheme of things, but while there are some rising stars amongst its ministers with at least some interest in architecture (Grant Shapps and Greg Clark), it is unlikely to be much of an architectural champion while Eric Pickles remains in charge - though the bookies think he won't be there much longer.

The Business department, in spite of having the most naff of recent departmental acronyms, BIS, is closer to where the power lies in government than either of the other departments, so on the face of it, this will be helpful to the new organisation in establishing itself.

BIS is responsible for the construction industry, and the Design Council in its present guise concerns itself with industrial design and so on. All of this suggests the possibility of new CABE involving itself in the building and production side of architecture, an aspect it has had little to do with in the past. At a time when there is a need to reinvent much of building construction to deal with climate change, this is an interesting opportunity.

For architecture to flourish in the public sector, it is necessary for there to be patrons, preferably ministers at a senior level. That is the only way that it will be taken seriously. The New Labour administration was in general terms about as philistine as they come for most of its time in office, but CABE was lucky to have the support of a few ministers who cared - Alan Howarth and Lord Falconer, for example. The person in the new government who appeared most likely to care about architecture was Ed Vaizey, assiduously courted by all before the election because it appeared he was likely to end up as architecture minister - which he did, for a day or two, before being replaced, as a result of a conflict of interest problem, by the source of that problem, a man called John Penrose, who has not been heard of since.

With Cameron and Osborne worthy heirs to Blair and Brown in their apparent lack of interest in the arts in general - and Education Secretary Michael Gove suggesting that school design can manage without architects - things don't look that promising. In that context, CABE's survival comes across as a grudging concession, rather than evidence of any enthusiasm or commitment on the part of the Government.

CABE is going to have to work hard to fight its corner. If architecture in the planning system has problems of its own, and architecture as fine art is of no interest, perhaps the promotion of architecture - including retrofit - as a source of climate change solutions will be the way to get noticed.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Welcome to Royston Vasey

People would be more interested in getting involved in a 'Big Community' than in the 'Big Society', according to research published this week.

There's not much sign of enthusiasm for 'Localism' either, so perhaps that term also needs another look.

The default unit of localism in the Localism Bill is the parish - we still have parish councils in some places, generally in the countryside, but not in others. The adjective associated with a parish is parochial. So perhaps Parochialism would be a better word for what is intended? Certainly as far as 'neighbourhood planning' is concerned, it would convey the likely flavour more accurately.

But there is also something called 'community planning' - which starts to sound a bit more like something useful.

The planning system suffers from too many words and not enough pictures, but the choice of words is still important.