Jay Merrick: Design, schools and pure humbug

Construction, profitability and poor design mark academy schools

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The Government has just announced a World Class Places scheme to make homes and neighbourhoods "high quality, safe and more sustainable places to live in" by improving their design. Whitehall's search for Quality Street – the Government's utterly banal headline phrase – is yet another tragicomic twist in the psycho-drama otherwise known as the future of Britain's built environment. The latest script contains the usual cliches about joined-up thinking, partnerships, and mutual support between government and non-governmental agencies.

But why should we believe a word of it, when the Government has consistently refused to put design quality at the heart of major public, and public-private, projects in our towns and cities? Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the creation of mostly stalag-like Academy schools in the £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, where contractor-led consortiums spend up to £5m just to try and win a single Academy commission. If a contractor wins, say, one bid in three, it's obvious that design quality will be sacrificed to recoup the millions already lost.

Yet the World Class Places strategy is founded on the same design quality thresholds used in the schools programme. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has been highly critical of the general standard of Academy schools; and the commission has itself been skewered by the director of Birmingham's £2.4bn BSF programme because they forgot to mention the need for education quality in their guide, 10 Points for a Well Designed School.

Joined-up thinking, partnerships, mutual support? There hasn't been any sustained evidence of it. Construction profitability and watered down design are the only resonant facts of this matter.

The sociologist Richard Sennett argued more than 30 years ago that the planning community, "must take responsibility for its acts in a historical, unpredictable society rather than in a dream world of harmony and pre-ordained order".

Sennett's prescient concern is borne out by the opening scenes of World Class Places, the Government's latest Truman Show, in which Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw and Housing Minister Ian Austin say jolly sensible things to Anna Scott-Marshall, head of public affairs at the RIBA; and all three of them say even more decent, sensible things to CABE, the Landscape Institute and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Superb! Ah, just one thing: what about those ruffians on the stairs? Those scores of second-rate developers who have the money to threaten or win appeals against planning refusals in cash-strapped boroughs, and create building after building of World Class Mediocrity.

The Government should put up, or shut up. Either it creates a rigorous, professionally potent planning system dominated by the imperatives of design quality, and urban and social diversity, or the future of our built environment remains little more than a fantasy script of whispered intentions.

It is absolutely not World Class Places or Quality Streets that we need. What we need is something more challenging: the courage, and imagination, to create highly specific conditions for change that will sustain the uniquely varying urban and cultural bricolages of our towns and cities.

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