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By Sunand Prasad

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A key question for the Review is: should the Government have an architecture policy? At a recent Farrell Review workshop on Government’s role in promoting design quality – one of the four topics in the Terms of Reference – a familiar point was re-made: that its people that make the difference not policy. Crudely put the argument goes: ‘good people can work round bad polices I but good policies cannot work round bad people’. Self motivated people in organisations, people determined to make a change, can work round bad policies; but even the best policies will fail if implementation encounters a jobsworth or negative attitude.

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Indeed it is normal for politicians and civil servants to ensure that policies that become politically inconvenient are ignored, compromised or thwarted; the UK’s climate change and energy policies being a case in point. This is hardly an argument for rejecting any role for policy; it seems obvious that good people implementing good policies is a winning combination. Nevertheless, it is a serious warning not to rely on policies alone to achieve anything, except perhaps disappointment.

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At the workshop there was much evidence that the credit for many of the architectural and urban design success stories of the recent past goes to individuals who set out to improve things. The discussion made me wonder if we can craft policies that instead of being prescriptive, specifying this or that course of action, directly support and empower anyone at any level in government, national or local, who is trying to do something special or different, who is showing initiative instead of being constrained by risk aversion. Can there be an incentivisation policy of the kind an enlightened company might have, where any new idea from the shop floor gets a good hearing, and if validated is rewarded? For example if you as a local authority officer have an idea for a scheme to improve a place or transform services, you will be entitled to put it to the highest level in the organisation and subject to fairly obvious criteria, entitled to support to develop the scheme. With such support will also come individual responsibility for making the scheme work.

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From 1999-2010 CABE was architecture policy. Within the European Forum for Architecture Policies, which has been going for 15 years, English reps would say that we have CABE instead of a national policy. The CABE idea of having Design Champions, intended to harness individual passion, initiative and responsibility, was successful in a few individual cases but did not live up to its promise. Can we find another way of harnessing the same qualities and energies but organically and bottom up rather than through appointment or position? That would be great policy.

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