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Architecture: Cities need muscle as well as heart

The Government is setting up a new body to ensure quality modern building. But, unlike its predecessor, will it have any real power?
When Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced in December his intention to create a new body charged with "championing good architecture", the sigh of relief from the architectural community was audible. At last the Labour Government seemed to be making good on some of the promises it made in its manifesto.

Smith said the new body -with the working title of Architecture Commission - would "combine the design review role of the Royal Fine Art Commission with an enhanced regional dimension and significant grant-giving powers". He then set up an implementation group to advise on how the new body would best fulfil its remit.

The implementation group had its first meeting this month and consists of figures well respected within the industry. Interviews for the chairman of the new body are likely to take place later this month. Names being touted for the role include the director of this year's Glasgow architecture festival Deyan Sudjic, Sunday Times architecture correspondent Hugh Pearman, Architects Journal editor Paul Finch and Architecture Foundation director Lucy Musgrave. So far so good.

But concerns are surfacing that the panel's remit does not include a discussion of the new body's role as champion for architecture, which looks like being little more than the RFAC with grant-giving bells on. The grandly titled RFAC was always caught in the invidious position of having influence but no teeth, charged with upholding national design standards without the ability to implement any. As Tom Stoppard wrote about the House of Lords, it exercised responsibility without power - the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.

The property developer and architectural patron Lord Palumbo cautions: "The substitute body won't make much of an impact unless it is voted wider powers by Parliament." He suggests that a starting point for the new body, "the very minimum", should be a proactive role in education with the aim of putting architecture on the curriculum.

Lee Mallett, the director of the architectural communications specialist Wordsearch, says the new champion for architecture must continue the work done by the RFAC in using its position to "embarrass" developers into improving their buildings. "I observed at first hand how the RFAC performed. When [Lord St John of] Fawsley arrived as chairman, he raised the stakes and, while other bodies stood on the sidelines while a lot of tosh got built, the RFAC had a generally positive effect."

The RFAC under Fawsley supported the challenging designs of Zaha Hadid for the Cardiff Bay Opera House, and directly intervened to preserve the International Terminal at Waterloo Station from mutilation by stopping an office block being built over it. While it was sometimes criticised as being the personal fiefdom of Fawsley, the RFAC was never less than robust in expressing its views and could not be characterised as anything other than independent.

Mallett suggests this robustness should be maintained but warns against increasing the power of the new commission: "It would be a complete nightmare to give it the ability to stop a building because of the way it looks. That would have a huge economic knock-on."

But Lord Palumbo says: "Wider powers is the crucial thing. I always thought the weakness of the RFAC was that it didn't have real powers. It was an advisory body and its advice could be taken or ignored. The new body needs more powers and a wider remit: whether it will be given them I very much doubt."

Scepticism is probably advisable, given the Government's mixed record on architecture. While in opposition, as in so many other areas of policy, Labour promised much. It made all the right noises and some of the right moves - elevating Richard Rogers to the House of Lords as a Labour peer, for instance. Even after the election, the omens still seemed good: Mark Fisher, a friend of Rogers, was appointed Arts Minister with the responsibility for delivering the Government's architecture policy. This policy was expected to include a commitment to quality design for all government buildings.

The good news for architects continued with the creation of the Urban Task Force, chaired by Lord Rogers, to look at the vexed problem of housing. But on the architecture policy, everything went quiet until last August's Cabinet reshuffle when Mark Fisher lost his job, with no policy to show for 15 months' grind.

If the Government wants to be a reforming administration, it should give the champion for architecture real muscle, allowing it to work both inside government and in the private sector. Grant-giving and design review should be part of the new body's work, not its only job.

It should have a wider-ranging brief, taking in Lottery projects, education initiatives, research and all government-funded buildings. This might not quite amount to a policy but it would get close to it.