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Wednesday 2 April 2008
Letters: British architects
Scandal of UK architects with no practical or technical training
Sir: In the discussion about the deteriorating quality of building design, Lord Rogers and your other correspondents (Letters, 31 March) have not realised that it is not a lack of architects that is the problem, but an almost complete dearth of properly trained architects. Over the past 20 years, technical training has virtually disappeared from architectural education, with the result that many architects no longer design their buildings in any detail, leaving the technical and construction detailing to a design and build contractor or, worse, to chance.
The schools of architectures' abandonment of practical areas of the subject dates back to the restructuring of university funding. At that time, medics, vets and dentists appealed to the government that their courses should be exempted from funding based on research carried out, rightly explaining that they had to teach significant amounts of basic skills. The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) was too wrapped up in its own little world to realise that architecture had just as valid a case, and did not press for architecture schools also to be exempted.
The result is that students get no teaching on anything remotely technical and have no understanding of basic structural engineering, no knowledge of materials and how they interact and only the vaguest idea of architectural practice. The schools of architecture admit to these voids in their curricula, and explain that these will be filled once their graduates start work. It's a bit like saying that doctors won't have any practical medical training, but will learn as they butcher their way through patients.
Architectural practices now have difficulty finding graduates who are employable, and the ever-diminishing number of technically competent staff means that incomplete designs have to be finished either by technical offices abroad, or as part of a design and build contract. From the students' point of view, it's even more of a scandal. They run up five years' worth of student loan only to find that their qualifications aren't worth a damn.
The solution is to reintroduce technical and practical content into the course requirements that the Riba sets. But for the Riba to do this would be to admit that its qualification has been devalued over the years, something it refuses to confront.
Dan Kantorowich, BA BArch RIBA FRSA
Cult of the market makes voters cynical
Sir: While I couldn't agree more with Johann Hari's excellent piece on proportional representation (31 March), he overlooks one important part of the argument. It can't be a coincidence that the two countries in Western Europe with the lowest turnouts are Britain and Ireland. These are the states which, more than any others in the EU, have bought into the "Anglo-Saxon model" of low taxes and minimal regulation.
A key part of this has been the message, promoted by the press, that private is good, and that "the state" is nothing but a bunch of meddling, self-serving bureaucrats. This has had the added bonus of promoting cynicism, above all among the disadvantaged and the young, who instead of challenging the establishment parties, are now the least likely to vote of all. This has skewed our politics further to the right, all but guaranteeing that any government in the foreseeable future will be "safe" for the likes of Rupert Murdoch.
The highest turnouts in Europe are to be found in the Scandinavian countries, with their strong tradition of Social Democracy (coupled, of course, with PR). Denmark, last November, managed 84 per cent. If Britain ever again achieves a turnout of 84 per cent under first past the post in my lifetime, then I promise to stand naked in the stocks in Trafalgar Square.
Other European countries with a strong Christian Democrat strain, like Germany and the Netherlands, also still manage to notch up 80 per cent. The message is clear. PR is a vital first step in restoring Britain's "natural" centre-left majority, but the real task will be to refute the perverse cult of the unfettered market that has taken hold here in the past 30 years.
Sir: Johann Hari is right to bemoan the inherently anti-democratic nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system. In the last general election 64 per cent of voters did not want a New Labour government. Result? A New Labour government with a more than healthy majority and Tony Blair saying they had "a mandate" basically for anything in their manifesto. How reassuring to know that with this version of democracy we were so keen to invade Iraq and educate the Iraqis in the matter.
I live in a safe Labour constituency. Having given Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt first time round, I voted LibDem in the last two general elections. Result? My vote was completely wasted and I was effectively disenfranchised. I am utterly devoted to democracy, but I now feel such despair that I am considering spoiling my ballot paper in future in protest.
Sir: Paul Farrow (letters, 1 April) has fallen into the trap of assuming that any PR system introduced would be like the system operating in Israel, for example. As the West German government found after the first Bundestag elections in 1949, such a system, based as it was on that appertaining in the Weimar Republic, can indeed create a plethora of smaller parties (pace Hitler's famous "34 parties" speech of the early 1930s). By the next elections, in 1953, the 5 per cent Sperrklausel had been introduced, meaning that a party had to record at least 5 per cent of the votes cast to be represented in parliament, thus dramatically reducing the number of parties in the new Bundestag.
Quite frankly, if any party, of either the left or the right, can reach this target, then it is deserving, in my opinion, of representation in parliament. Better that their policies are then subject to scrutiny than being allowed to fester on the margins, where many of the myths they peddle can be allowed to develop without proper challenge.
Dangers of a DNA database
Sir: Keeping the DNA of convicted criminals on a database is a first-class aid to detecting future criminal activity. However, any suggestion that the police should therefore be allowed to collect everyone's DNA does not make sense. The more innocent people on the database, the more diluted and ineffective it would become.
Ken Campbell (letters, 31 March) rightly points out that innocent people would be arrested simply because their DNA was accidentally present at a crime scene. I would go further than that; if criminals knew that everyone's DNA profile was on the database they would make certain that a good selection of DNA was added to crime scenes, making false arrest a certainty and wasting a lot of police resources.
What price, in this DNA-database future, for a bag of floor sweepings from a barbers, or for the contents of a litter-bin from a public toilet?
End pernicious trade in personal data
Sir: Donald Trelford's piece "If this Bill is passed, it could mean the end of investigative journalism" (Media, 31 March), is wrong on several counts.
In 2006 my office exposed an illegal, widespread and pernicious trade in personal information. Law firms, financial institutions and the media have been engaging private investigators to obtain people's health, financial and other personal details to order. This has been a specific criminal offence for many years, but has not been deterred by availability of unlimited fines. The government has recognised that the custodial sentence included in its Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill is needed to deter those who steal data.
This does not threaten responsible investigatory journalism in any way. Donald Trelford is wrong to suggest that a simple phone call puts a journalist at risk of imprisonment. The offence is only committed where the information is obtained knowingly or recklessly without the consent of the organisation holding it. Usually the information is "blagged" through deceptive impersonation or by a corrupt payment. With a clear public-interest defence, genuine investigatory journalism is further protected – but not the scavenging for tittle-tattle uncovered by my office.
Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. But – unless public-interest considerations apply – freedom of speech does not justify stealing information any more than it would permit stealing a briefcase or a laptop.
Government and other organisations hold ever-increasing volumes of data about all of us. There was widespread anger when child benefit and other data losses came to light, but at least that was accidental. This offence targets deliberate security breaches. This is the Government's first legislative opportunity to demonstrate its seriousness in safeguarding information. It would be extraordinary for its welcome strong line to be abandoned or opposed at this late stage.
Information Commissioner,Wilmslow, Cheshire
In praise of thelife-long marriage
Sir: In his musings on marriage Terence Blacker (28 March) says that most marriages have "a natural life span" and should not be expected to last forever. I would argue for the greater benefits of life-long marriages or partnerships. Even if one puts aside the needs of children, there is the huge issue of failing health and abilities as we age. A relationship that has struggled and matured over 30-40 years is better placed to care for each of its partners as physical or mental decline sets in. And set in it will!
This may not be something we want to contemplate as we move between relationships, convincing ourselves we can't be so old if we are suddenly attractive to a new partner. The losers I would suggest are those who give up the struggle and go with the life-span idea. They never get to experience the much greater satisfaction of a relationship lasting decades.
DR Margaret Ellam
Sentencing is not police business
Sir: There has been too much interference from politicians and now the Merseyside Chief Constable into what sentences judges should impose (report, 25 March). The police officer's job finishes when the evidence is presented to a court. It has now become fashionable for investigating officers to carry out post-case press conferences, and become personally involved by commenting on the sentencing and the offender[s]. Police officers owe as much to the offender as they do to the victim, because it is the crime they are investigating not the perpetrators. Once a police officer makes it personal, there is a good chance that [s]he will lose objectivity and try to make the evidence fit the crime.
Why kamikaze pilots wore helmets
Sir: Robert H Frank suggests that kamikaze pilots wore helmets as protection against the effects of severe turbulence (28 March). However, flying helmets in the Second World War were made of soft materials such as linen and leather, and so offered little or no protection against such injury.
The real reason why kamikaze pilots wore helmets was because these supported earphones, microphones and oxygen masks, all necessary when flying a military mission whether you were to return or not.
The "bone dome", which would offer some protection against turbulence, only appeared in the early 1950s and is a product of the age of the jet fighter.
Ripon, North Yorkshire
Upside of 'nomo-phobia'
Sir: Given the 'nomo-phobia' epidemic in this country (report, 31 March), the police should now be enabled to confiscate the mobile phones of those using them illegally while driving. The pain and anguish of this temporary loss and the hassle of getting a replacement should, on this evidence, provide an excellent and proportionate deterrent.
Sir: Arguing for cordiality between church and science, Bruce Anderson (31 March) suggests that abortion would be "almost unnecessary" if "a wholly reliable contraceptive with no harmful side-effects" were invented. He appears not to countenance the many cases of conception that result from instances of human frailty, desperation, passion, ignorance, stupidity, and – more terrible but no less a reality – rape. No contraceptive would prevent such pregnancies.
Carla exposes sexism
Sir: So you think every Continental leader should have a Carla to "deploy" on state visits (leading article, 29 March)? Other, I presume, than those such as Angela Merkel. Perhaps when the number of women leaders reaches a critical mass the pointlessness of mixing partners with politics will become clearer. Given the persistent and pervasive gender-stereotyping that the Sarkozy visit has revealed, I fear that day is some way off.
Good vs evil
Sir: Michael Glover concluded his review of my New Waste Land (20 March) by declaring "humans are fundamentally not good". This judgment sidelines the countless good things our race has created over the centuries. Is it not more accurate to observe that most humans contain near-infinite potential for better and for worse within them? As John Lennon said 40 years ago: "We are all Christ and we are all Hitler. We want Christ to win."
Sir: At the cinema recently I saw a short film designed to attract people to the teaching profession. It showed a teacher and four or five children having fun with a wind tunnel, testing various aerodynamic shapes. As a former science teacher, I did wonder what the other 25 pupils were up to while this was going on.
Sir: Your absurd April Fool's joke was beyond belief. Base metal to gold, anti-gravity devices, or a photo of the wall at the end of infinity – yes: but Mr Ramsay devoid of swearing (report, 1 April)? Pull the other one.
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