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Saturday, March 20, 2010

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A fresh wind blows when an election is called. Four years of John Prescott talking abstractly about "wow factor" buildings takes on a new perspective when MPs risk a bloody nose for ambitious projects in their constituency that have gone spectacularly wrong. And airy notions about sustainable communities become real on constituency doorsteps when voters vent frustration about the break-up of communities due to a failure to deliver affordable housing.

The next four weeks will see the built environment at the heart of political campaigning. Don't expect to see politicians on the stump advocating the reform of PFI to put design first; or better trained planning committees matching demands for better school dinners. But in constituencies across the country, local built-environment issues will be hot topics and that is something the profession should welcome, even if architecture doesn't make it onto Election Question Time. Architecture has never done well in Whitehall, but on the stump, it matters.

For example, debate on healthcare will focus on the new local hospital or GP surgery. The same goes for education and the impact of a new or upgraded school. What to do with that local park/marina/car park? It is all architecture.

The fact that the most heartfelt political discussions involving architecture are local affairs suggests that on May 5, local elections could be as important as the parliamentary vote.

The quality of the national political debate about architecture is less edifying. This week we asked the three main parties to answer your questions about built-environment policies. Tellingly, Labour declined, instead issuing a mini-manifesto for the built environment that indicates no deviation from its Sustainable Communities Plan. The party's pledge to install "design champions" in three-quarters of local authorities might be welcome, if it hadn't already done so little to improve the quality of local planning skills. The plan for 100 housing developments that match the Building for Life standard is hopeful, but there is still no talk of sufficient new investment in infrastructure.

The Liberal Democrats appear to take a more radical position while the Conservatives display little coherent vision. It is a disappointing show. Firm political leadership is essential for a better built environment and over the next month politicians should realise that a better built environment is essential for votes.

Source Citation
Booth, Robert. "The big issue at the heart of the election." Building Design 1668 (2005): 13. Popular Magazines. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.
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