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Will the mouthpiece have some teeth?

11 Mar 2005

by Peter Wilson

Architecture and Design Scotland is the latest agency to join the very long list of professional organisations, public and quasi-public bodies, civic and special interest groups that have an interest in the built environment of Scotland. For a small country, we could well be the most over-architectured state in Europe and certainly one of the most acronym overburdened. In this less than sparkling crowd, will A&DS shine its torch brightly enough to stand out in the eyes of the public, and the profession, as the true champion of the nation’s architecture, or will it turn out to be yet another mouthpiece without the teeth to really change things for the better?

Certainly it has many things going for it - its budget from the Scottish Executive is almost double that of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland whose functions it is taking over. It has the ear of the Culture Minister, although whether this is a benefit remains to be seen, as the current incumbent is the fourth politician since devolution to have ‘responsibility’ for architecture. And as a non-departmental public body (quango) it is a company limited by guarantee, with a 16 member advisory board comprising of some of Scotland’s brightest design talent, a chair and two deputy chairs, and – at the time of writing – two employees.

Its principal aim is to “inspire better quality in design and architecture so that Scotland’s built environment contributes in a positive way to quality of life and our built heritage”. Aside from the design review role which has been transferred to it, the other two ways in which it intends to achieve this are via an enabling and advocacy function and through research and communication. Rather than acting as a northern CABE, it will complement the activities of the Lighthouse in the delivery of the Scottish Executive’s policy on architecture, and indeed the relationship between the two is the subject of a concordat being developed for publication later this year.

CABE’s budget of £12million would be difficult to match of course, but with a tenth of England’s population, the combined funding from the Scottish Executive for A&DS and the Lighthouse is almost exactly ten per cent of the sum CABE receives from Westminster. And here lies the rub: What start-up company with a contract already in place guaranteeing an annual income of £600,000 reaches this stage without a well-formulated business plan that has clearly set out targets for its staff and board to deliver? Worryingly this still seems to be some way off, since, “to ensure resources are targeted effectively”, the new body is required “to engage with the people responsible for, or with an interest in the built environment across Scotland.” This engagement begins with yet another consultation exercise “to establish the nature and priorities of the work required”.

In truth, it is difficult to see anything radical in the motherhood-and-apple-pie optimism surrounding the creation of A&DS since it has no statutory powers to ensure its aims are delivered. Moreover, accountability merely takes the form of an annual report to Parliament to advise Scottish Ministers on its activities and achievements: not exactly the same as a Minister actually being responsible to Parliament for policies and actions that affect the built environment. The political aspiration to make “Scotland one of the best small countries in the world” somehow fails to extend to bringing together the budgets and activities of all departments of government that have an interest in this area. That, of course, would require political will rather than rhetoric to ensure that real change was effected.

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