Former transport minister John Hayes has issued a lambasting critique of civil engineering companies and their inability to design “beautiful” infrastructure.
Speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event, Hayes bemoaned the extent to which design flair has been “stripped out” of civils’ firms offer.
“It is once true that most engineering companies were associated with design too,” said Hayes. “Increasingly the design aspects have been pared down or stripped out.
“You have to look back at Brunel,” said Hayes, reflecting on how many of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s structures are considered iconic. “You have to reassociate engineering with design, and quality design at that,” he said.
When transport minister Hayes was instrumental in establishing a design panel to oversee Highways England’s major roads programme. The panel’s role was written into the Highways England’s operating licence.
Its members includes the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, the Design Council and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Natural England.
Hayes urged civil engineers to embrace the thinking, and to go beyond the practical when delivering schemes.
“There can be form and function. Harmony is the key,” he said.
In response, WSP managing director for planning and advisory Ian Liddell said beauty when delivering infrastructure went beyond the immediately obvious aesthetic:
“What I find beautiful is what works,” said Liddell, a chartered civil engineer with 30 years experience in transport planning.
“We need to look beyond vision and concepts and look at how things have been delivered; I see the ultimate goal as improving quality of life and improving economic productivity,” he said.
Liddell added that WSP will soon be publishing a white paper on Productive Places, showcasing the contribution of the built environment to addressing the productivity puzzle.
“Our Productive Places white paper will look at how local authorities can make improvements to the local built and natural environment to drive economic productivity,” he explained. Hayes’ criticism was mainly aimed at architects, who he said had lost their sense of “harmony and rhythm”, leading to a collective failure to build towns and cities to be proud of.
“In my opinion we have failed miserably,” he said, before using Birmingham, and the fringe event’s venue, the relatively new Library of Birmingham, as a case in point.
“There is barely a building in Birmingham that shouldn’t be demolished,” he said. “This monstrosity that we are sat in is a perfect example. This is an appalling building. It is disharmonious. It is a disgrace,” he said.
Hayes insisted he was not alone on this view.
“In every popular survey ever done on this subject the public overwhelmingly prefer buildings built before the last war,” he said, adding that architects themselves preferred to live in such places.
“It may be a hypocrisy that many of the architects doing this live in Georgian houses in Kensington and Chelsea,” he said.
“We have lost the plot. We have come to believe that utility, function is more important than form,” he stressed.
“We need a sea change in philosophy. We need to change our assumptions about planning made over the last 50 years. Planning rules need to change,” he said.
The fringe event was organised by independent think tank ResPublica. Its 2015 report A Community Right to Beauty made policy recommendations with the aim of provoking fresh thinking about the planning and design of the built environment. It proposed a range of new powers and incentives to support the democratic discernment of what makes a neighbourhood beautiful, and communities’ ability to independently create, shape, and improve their locale.
UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen said that positive steps were being taken, particularly with regard to the government’s planned amendments to the Social Value Act, which will call on central government to “account for” social value in procurement strategies, an improvement on the requirement to “consider” social value implications in previous incarnations.
“But we are still far, far away from delivering beautiful, healthy, sustainable, productive places on a consistent basis,” she said.
“We need more direction from government and more businesses to be accountable.”
Nicolas Boys Smith, founding director of Create Streets, said his research his organisation revealed earlier this year that is a direct link between improved building quality and the volume of objections made about new schemes.
Responding to Hayes’ comments, Paul Finch, editorial director of the Architects’ Journal said: “It is difficult to know whether John Hayes’ views represent ignorance qualified by prejudice or prejudice qualified by ignorance. He has been peddling his second-hand opinions for several years now, to no noticeable effect, possibly because none of his ministerial responsibilities have concerned architecture, whatever impression he tries to give to the contrary.”
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