We Don’t Need any More Ministers, Just Better Functioning Ones

The RIBA have issued a very worthy document entitled Building a Better Britain: A Vision for the Next Government.

Unlike one of their star members (see my last entry) RIBA endorse the need to review the Green Belt in order to aid housing delivery. They also advocate the introduction of a national framework strategy (something I have previously called for), a minister for architecture – and a national architecture policy – and amongst other things, further devolved power to local level to encourage communities to take the burden for delivering growth and infrastructure.

I like the RIBA. They have an opinion, and they express it – often in more frank and timely fashion than the RTPI do. I also don’t blame them for making a push for architecture at a national level. They are there to protect and promote their members after all. However, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to call for a minster for architecture. It would be a bit like the CIPHE (look it up) calling for a minster for plumbing. Not exactly a priority.

But they are right to call for a national framework. Wales have one, so why doesn’t England? Housing is not an isolated land use: it goes where the jobs are – or rather, people follow the jobs, and housing has to try and keep up. There’s not enough jobs in the north. There’s plenty of jobs in the south. You can buy a house in the north for not a lot of money. You need loads of money to buy anything in the south. It’s going to take years to reverse that trend, and it does require a national mandate.

However, I don’t think the RIBA is correct in assuming that local authorities will create patchwork of local policies that will feed into a national framework. Localism encourages people to look after themselves and their closest stakeholders. The duty to cooperate is a giant size failure of the NPPF. Council x is not communicating with council y, let alone on a sub-regional or regional basis. I am not suggesting that we need to wind the clock back ten years to regional assemblies, but we do need some form of mechanism to capture the benefits of growth and infrastructure across the country. Take HS2: if it does go ahead, it will have been an isolated decision from where homes and communities are to be located. A national plan (or framework) could have aligned jobs, homes and infrastructure. As it stands, it simply looks as though there will be parkway stations that will allow people to commute further to work in London.

The RIBA’s document is pitched square and centre at the next Government, and that is probably well advised. We have a Secretary of State that is unlikely to make a decision on anything this side of the General Election that leads to accusations in Tory heartlands of ‘concreting over the countryside’. The best planning minister we have had for generations has been quietly shipped off to straddle the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills and Education.

So what I would advocate is the next Secretary of State (of whichever party) making some quick and decisive decisions. Firstly, establish a working party to introduce a national framework by the end of the five year Government which would look at planning, infrastructure, taxation and other associated issues holistically. Secondly (and one for the lawyers), seek to align local elections to the same five year cycle so that all political decisions are condensed to the same window. Thirdly, abolish the right to Secretary of State decisions. There is no need for them. Let planning decisions be made on planning grounds. If they are wrong, the Courts will soon put them right. However, they are unlikely to have the whiff of party politics about them, and the relevant Secretary of State can’t be accused of intervention.

Such measures would provide real leadership, and would negate the need for further ministers to take responsibility, be that for architecture or anything else.


P.S. Before anyone says ‘too difficult’, think back to 1997. Four days after Labour won the General Election, Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control. Just saying…

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