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Stating the obvious is not enough

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After two months spent interviewing 1,018 people aged over 16 in 100 different locations around the UK, we now know that, yes, most people would rather live in cleaner, quieter, smarter areas, with better access to shops and less traffic.

We now know that graffiti, poor maintenance, car dominance and broken furniture equals 'street of shame'. And that wide footpaths, block paving roads, pedestrians and street cleaners equals street of desire.

And while the public believes that local and central government should take a lead and commit greater resources to improving their local environment, many would also be prepared to pay more to achieve improvement.

The Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment was hardly likely to report that no one cared a damn about their local environment. It is pretty obvious that most sane people prefer not to risk life and limb getting in and out of their home or to wade through piles of rubbish getting to the shops.

Of course most of us want our local environment and public spaces to be attractive, safe and crime free. Of course some people would be willing to pay a small charge if it could guarantee improvements. Of course most people blame the government for not making it happen.

So while the CABE 'Streets of Shame' report is probably bang on the nail in terms of identifying public aspiration and is welcome as a tool for pinpointing blackspots and highlights, the report does little else.

Why it is that local authorities and central government are not tackling these issues? Why are civil engineers, transport and planning professionals, architects and developers not roaming the UK transforming the built environment? Why does function so often dictate the design of public buildings?

The answer to all these questions is certainly not because no one realised the public cared about the environment they live and work in.

The reality that CABE's report glosses over is that, while these issues are important, they are not always the most important issues in people's lives.

Yes, 81% say that they are 'interested in how the built environment looks and feels'.

But faced with a choice of spending money on hospitals and schools, priorities quickly shift. Faced with the prospect of increased taxes to boost the quality of public spaces, improve public transport and clean up our streets, a similar proportion would no doubt prefer to stay indoors and spend the money going on holiday each year.

CABE's survey is interesting and useful but only as yet another line in the sand. The situation in the UK's built environment is, in reality, no different to any of the other sectors tackled in last week's NCE/ICE State of the Nation report card. The public wants a better living environment, but surveys would find that it also wants better railways, a less congested road network, more reliable public transport, a cleaner environment and cheap power and water.

Civil engineers know that all are possible. Yet until proper leadership is shown by the government and some tough, perhaps unpopular decisions taken to raise and spend money on the nation's infrastructure, any number of CABE-type surveys will be a waste of time.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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