Khan’s ‘brave’ new design vision for London

Blimey! It’s been a busy few days alright. The day job has been seriously getting in the way and we haven’t even started on the summer parties yet (perhaps I will see you at the BPF bash tonight?) and I really don’t know how I am going to fit everything in. It is a worry. 

Three days at the Local Government Association Conference last week was diverting, to say the least. It is always nothing short of a gathering of the clans, after all, not quite MIPIM in feel (Birmingham rather than Cannes, which must have a bearing, and – moreover – the nasal hair and shabby suit mob rather than the Gucci loafer brigade) but with a similar sense of humour and belonging. Folks renew acquaintance, and plot in corners, and drink, and laugh, and shift stuff along. It is a shared endeavour. It is a family. You may have seen that this year there was a slightly worrying blame culture developing between Whitehall and the town halls, in the aftermath of Grenfell, which I guess was to be expected (in stark contrast to last year when we were all In It Together) but I am optimistic that that will blow over soon. Certainly in the SOLACE (The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) event, in which I participated, there was a spirit of optimism and positivity and, exactly as I predicted in my last post, the sense that in the aftermath of a messy election with a vacuum in leadership, the local authorities can, in very large part, determine their own destinies right now. We watch with interest.   

And then last night (so very flattering) I was asked to sit on a platform with the great LSE professorial tour de force of Tony Travers and Ricky Burdett, and the saintly Sadie Morgan, as Sadiq Khan launched his brilliant manifesto for London design quality “Good Growth by Design”, which is a brave and bold piece of work by any standards. Khan is something of a revelation to me. I was seriously impressed; not only by his dedication to the cause and his authoritative grasp of the subject, but by his very sparkly sense of humour (forgive me if you knew all about this already, I haven’t had my eye on the London ball for some years really). He was light on his feet, and warm, and inclusive, and witty, and urbane. I was blown away. He always comes across as so serious and studied on the telly. And they have come up with this stonkingly good idea of an organisation called “Public Practice” to broker placements for “outstanding planning and place shaping practitioners” within local authorities. I understand this was the brainchild of Finn Williams (a young entrepreneurial member of Sadiq’s team) and he sure deserves a medal for that one.  

And they were hanging from the rafters on a hot evening in a packed Peacock Theatre at the LSE last night. It was a total sell-out. I made my usual grumpy and intemperate remarks about the need to engage the commercial sector (certainly our audience consisted almost entirely of the design luvvies, and there was a stark absence of volume housebuilders or funders) and that we had not won the argument that good design need not cost more than poor. Wayne Hemingway from the floor took issue with this, saying that CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) had proved it time and time again. I have had pleasurable spats with Mr Hemingway before, who is a most worthy sparring partner, although perhaps never before in front of 2000 of your closest friends! And I am sure he is absolutely right, technically. But I am afraid that it is the sad and demonstrable truth that we have NOT won this argument with the volume housebuilders. After all, if we had, then the mayor wouldn’t need a “Good Growth by Design Manifesto” at all!  Sorry, but that is the sad and lamentable truth of the matter. And I am afraid we have a good way to go before our sector assimilates the principles of saving money through enduring design. Someone tweeted straight after the event “and that’s before you even start with value engineering” and there you have it, really. 

I am sure that this debate will rumble on. And on. After all, I have personally been faffing around the edges of it for the last 30 years. At least. But Sadiq Khan and his team (and his 50 new “Design Advocates”, half of whom are women, and a quarter of whom are from BME communities) and the LSE are to be roundly congratulated. It is a total triumph.  


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