Over the past few months, I have been one of three adjudicators of the annual 'Working for Cities' competition, sponsored by British Gas, with Lady Gibberd, a member of the Eastern Arts Board and a former member of the Crafts Council, and David Mach, the sculptor. The scheme celebrates the role of the arts in urban regeneration. The hardest part of our task was to find projects that could come anywhere near matching last year's impressive winner - Sustrans, a company which is creating a nationwide network of cycle trails lined with sculptures. Rightly or wrongly, we constantly measured each of this year's entries against them.
How the works looked on paper was critical to imagining them as sculptures or murals: at our first meeting last November, a shortlist was to be drawn up on the strength of those applications. You would think that an entry form would be easy for people supposedly possessing a visual sense. We made allowances for a possible lack of money to produce good photographs, but could not excuse slovenly writing or bad or non-existent captioning. Some images were totally meaningless: someone standing by a few planks of wood. Others bore no obvious relevance to what was described on the entry-form.
With a slide-projector, the three of us slid through each application. Was the overall artistic standard of art in public spaces as low as the photographs suggested? We soon came to accept that we were not going to discover a great work of art; we sought instead a project that responded to - and above all affected - the surrounding environment. How a work of art had improved life in an urban community became the paramount criterion. But even there, we were to be largely disappointed.
Lady Gibberd was taken with the paving by Tess Jaray outside Wakefield Cathedral. Mach and I were uninspired: as he put it, 'it doesn't take an artist to do it to that standard'. Lady Gibberd disagreed. It sparked off good-humoured debate about the divide between art and craft. She did point out that we might have appreciated better how Jaray's paving had transformed the precinct if we had been supplied with a 'before' photograph of the site, instead of views of it under construction. Lady Gibberd expressed such enthusiasm for Wakefield, it was placed on the 'possible' pile. We moved on.
Four sculpted horses on Piccadilly, on the corner of the Criterion block, were next. Here, at last, was an application that was highly professional. All three of us were already familiar with the work. We felt that it did not take into account its surroundings: the rearing animals are too cramped between the building and the cars careering round that busy corner. The thought that the cars cause them to rear up does not last long.
Eventually, we shortlisted five projects: the Concrete Creations Group, Birmingham; the Tabor County High School and Braintree Leisure Centre, Essex; Ludgate (Rosehaugh Stanhope Developments); Merseytravel/ Railside Revival; and Wakefield.
A few weeks later, James Holyoak and James Coutts, directors of Concrete Creations Group showed us round the Bond design centre, a renovated complex of studios and offices in Birmingham. Along an 185-foot stretch of wall lining the nearby canal, they had commissioned six aerosol artists, unemployed and aged between 19 and 24, to paint a mural. It was not the first time that some had painted that wall. This time, given the recognition of a commission, they had painted a bright and cheerful mural on the theme of 'Birmingham, past, present and future'.
Holyoak and Coutts explained that the renovation had helped to transform a dangerous area into a picturesque route used by walkers and cyclists. New tenants are being attracted to set up offices in the complex. 'The potential for improving the canals and other dead spaces in Britain is endless,' said Holyoak. But Lady Gibberd felt the mural didn't stand together as one work, as each of its sections were conceived separately.
Liverpool was next. We went travelling on the underground, in search of art. We stopped off at Bootle Oriel Road Station: a mural of the nearby dock, painted by a local student, brightened up the entry-hall. Local children had created pictures and words on the theme of Stop Vandalism. Pretty, but too insubstantial for a public space. At James Street Station, however, we were impressed by a 50- metre-long relief, in cast concrete and mosaic, resembling an excavated archaeological frieze, the work of Tim Chalk and Paul Grime, two Edinburgh artists. Lady Gibberd noted that these two clearly understood scale. The cost of the project at pounds 45,000 was, I thought, expensive. My colleagues disagreed.
The following week, we visited Tabor, an Essex school and leisure centre, opened last September. While I waited for Richard Snelling, the head teacher, to show me round, I asked a boy what he thought of one of several sculptures - a mobile of knotted ropes in blue and green dyes that hangs over the central staircase. 'I've seen worse', he said. 'Whether they love or hate the art doesn't matter,' said the head. 'It gets them thinking and talking about it.' True enough, works like the outside fountain (an abstract in steel full of swoops and curves) gave the building an attractive character rare in schools.
At our next meeting in London, a lively debate about our judging criteria was resumed. Liverpool, considering limited funds, was doing sterling work. 'But they have just one good piece,' thought Lady Gibberd. She considered the variety of work at Ludgate was 'excellent'. Mach however was disappointed by its quality.
By the end of the session, such was our disappointment at the overall quality of entrants, it was a valid question whether to award at all. Mach and I felt that by not doing so, we would make a statement. But that, ultimately, seemed too negative. Our final shortlist is Tabor, Essex; Ludgate, London; Merseytravel/ Railside, Liverpool; and Wakefield. The debate goes on: the final choice will be announced on 8 June.
For information about Working for Cities, contact Sue Lancashire, 071- 221 7883.