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Matthew-Skillington Report

Volume 888: debated on Monday 17 March 1975

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Before I call the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) to begin the next debate I should point out that his remarks should be limited to the increase of staff and that he should not debate the policy issues involved in the Matthew-Skillington Report.

1.27 a.m.

Class VIII, Vote 7, Subhead A1, deals with salaries of the Department of the Environment, and we read in paragraph (3) that the existing provision of £35·8 million for the salaries of 11,563 staff

"in support of various programmes"
has been revised upwards to £38·3 million. This increase gives me an opportunity to seek to establish from the Minister what provision, if any, has been made within that sum of £38·3 million for the implementation of the Minister's various decisions which he announced on the Matthew-Skillington Report.

I appreciate the narrow scope of the debate, and I shall confine my remarks solely to the staffing questions arising from that Estimate. As this matter indirectly concerns building I, as always, declare an interest as a non-executive director of Lovell Homes Ltd., although that has no relevance to this debate.

It was in December 1972 that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) appointed that distinguished architect Sir Robert Matthew and that fine public servant, since retired, Mr. Patrick Skillington to inquire into methods by which the Department of the Environment could promote high standards of design in Government building. I say in passing that it is ironic that the Department of the Environment should be housed in arguably the worst example of 1960s architecture in central London, with its three brutalised towers and windswept, dreary appearance.

Sir Robert and Mr. Skillington completed their report last April and it was made available for comment to a limited number of organisations and trade journals at the end of July. I suspect that the relatively slow and cautious attitude which Ministers took towards publication was due to the extremely careful and outspoken nature of the recommendations in the report. This is also borne out by the fact that despite regular Questions from me the Secretary of State for the Environment did not announce his decision until 4th March 1974, nearly 11 months after the publication of a report which is only 41 pages long in toto. In saying that, I make no party point at all.

The administrative and financial arrangements governed by this Estimate and which the authors commented on so unfavourably in the report have existed for many years through a succession of different Ministries—Housing, Public Building and Works and so on—and any experienced Whitehall observer knows that departmental reshuffles of staff usually involve the same people doing the same jobs under different titles but not, as in local government, for more money.

There are three different aspects of the report and the staffing implications which I wish to consider. The first deals with the Property Services Agency. According to answers that I have received from Ministers over the past 12 months, on 1st June 1974 the agency directly employed 411 architects who designed slightly less than half the annual workload of about £250 million of new construction in 1973, of which £28 million worth was overseas.

The authors of the report say bluntly that the agency was falling down on its job of promoting high standards of design and was restricting good architects. For example, in paragraph 2.7 they say:
"… if the quality and variety of opportunities could be taken as the sole measure, the Property Services Agency could well be expected to attract consistently high levels of talent without difficulty. This is not happening."
We read of great difficulties in recruiting good architects, of ageing staff, that
"the general level of quality of buildings is mediocre",
and in paragraph 3.7 that the Property Service Agency follows
"some inherited professional practices which are now largely discredited amongst the professions at large—e.g. the use of 'drawing offices' not forming integral parts of the design teams and the use of partial commissions."
In short, they say, the agency is in a self-defeating situation. High-quality design requires high-quality architects, and high-quality architects will only be attracted to an organisation which clearly gives maximum opportunities for the deployment of total professional skills.

The report therefore recommended the appointment of a chief architect of deputy secretary rank with wide-ranging responsibilities, but without immediately the line management control of design which would give him effective supervision of client programmes, cost targets and so on, although there was to be a pilot scheme of direct control of one design office. Wider responsibilities would come later through a series of separate regional design offices.

The Minister has partly accepted the recommendation by appointing a Director-General of Design Services, Mr. W. D. Lacey, as a deputy secretary at a salary of £14,000 per annum. That was announced on 4th March. Is that appointment budgeted for in this Estimate? The director-general's role, we are told, will be broadly as recommended by the report, except that there is no real suggestion of total line management or regional design offices. There is only a very tentative genuflexion to that end in paragraph 13 of the Secretary of State's decision letter of 4th March.

How many staff will be directly responsible to Mr. Lacey in the forthcoming year? How many of them will be architects? How many will be newly recruited to the Department of the Environment? What is the overall budget for this exercise and how does it fit in with this Estimate? Secondly, how many of the architects already employed by the PSA will be responsible to Mr. Lacey directly, how will they he chosen and on what basis?

Thirdly, what proportion of the design commissions of the PSA will be given to the director-general for his unit and under what criteria will they be allocated to him? If the same architects are used as under existing arrangements, how will design standards be improved? Fourthly, will Mr. Lacey be able to implement the recommendations in paragraph 6.7 of the report that architects in the PSA should be called architects and not P & TO IIs?

Fifthly, is it intended to continue to process normal regional design projects through the regional offices of the agency? If so, will there be any alteration of staffing arrangements there, and is it covered in this Vote?

Personally I do not think that the report, the Minister or this Vote, have gone far enough. When one reads statements such as
"The PSA, as at present constituted, carries an unsatisfactory, even daunting image. It is one of a large impersonal administrative machine",
it is not enough simply to recommend that the name of the agency be altered to seem more environmentally conscious. What is now needed is a full-scale review of the PSA, including whether it should employ designing architects at all—a major question which is quite inadequately dealt with in paragraph 7.2 of the report. That is something which could well be looked at by the Expenditure Committee.

I turn to the second part of the report, which arises under this Vote and which deals with the central Department of the Environment. Here again, with the exception of the Department of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, the report is highly critical of present arrangements. The report recommended that there should be a Directorate of the Built Environment in the Department of the Environment, as well as the existing Housing Development Directorate, and that it should be headed by a chief environmental architect. Fortunately the Secretary of State has rejected that recommendation. I say "fortunately" because I do not believe that such an appointment would have served any useful purpose. For example, the Housing Development Directorate in June 1974 already employed 25 architects and 13 chartered surveyors, who perform a useful research rôle which could be expanded to meet the Matthew-Skillington recommendations at less cost.

The right hon. Gentleman's alternative decision is to set up an environmental board comprising various departmental heads and some outside professionals. This looks to me like a suspiciously nebulous exercise. I therefore pose these administrative questions to the Minister. First, arising out of this Vote, what will be the size and staffing costs of the secretariat of the board and, since they will presumably be taken from their existing duties to undertake this administrative work, will they be replaced by newly-recruited civil servants or will their work be allocated among existing officials. with no staff increase?

Secondly, will the external members of the board be paid under this Vote? If so, how much, and how will they be chosen? Thirdly, we are told that the first job of the board is apparently to help local authorities to implement certain sections of land nationalisation. What has that got to do with design, and why should these duties be remitted to a body which involves officials without any departmental responsibility in that regard? Why cannot the Chief Planner's Department do it on its own?

I have a strong suspicion that this board will be just another Marsham Street talking shop. I very much doubt whether it will in any way improve design standards because I doubt whether the very senior and busy men involved will be able to devote sufficient time to such politically unexciting fields of endeavour.

My final set of comments concerns the Minister's decision on that section of the Matthew-Skillington report which deals with liaison with the construction industry. Once again the report was sharply critical of the Department for failing to act effectively in its sponsoring rôle, but there was also trenchant criticism of the industry's collective structure, with the undoubtedly true statement that
"The industry tends to present its case in a fragmented, ill-organised and sometimes contradictory way."
The report very sensibly recommended that a new section should be set up in the DGER to study the details of economic behaviour in the building industry. Is that recommendation accepted by Ministers? Is it part of this Estimate? hope so, because when I was director of the House-Builders Federation I felt that the grasp of the practical problems of the housebuilder at the highest level of the Department of the Environment was something less than satisfactory. That is a sphere to which both the Minister and his adviser, Mr. Warren Evans, should turn their attention.

In this necessarily limited debate I have dealt not with the policy of the Matthew-Skillington Report—that would be out of order—and still less with the important design considerations which arise, but with some complex administrative matters which raise important matters of financial policy and control. I hope that the Minister has taken note of them and will endeavour to answer them. However, it is only right to conclude by congratulating Sir Robert and Mr. Skillington on their very thought-provoking report. Like Ministers, I did not agree with all of it, but it dealt with these serious problems in a refreshingly frank way.

1.40 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) not only on raising this most interesting subject but also on his skill in remaining in order while he did so. I had the feeling that a number of the interesting questions which he posed to me were not questions on which he expected precise and immediate replies but were rhetorical questions put in order for him to remain in order. However, knowing the hon. Member's almost insatiable appetite for information connected even remotely with the building industry I feel sure that if he were to be given all the answers he would be pleased with them and would profit from receiving them.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's decision to raise this subject. I wish he had been a little more successful in the Ballot so that we could have gone home a little earlier, but this is as suitable a time as any to discuss the matter.

Though the decisions on the Matthew-Skillington Report relate to the internal organisation of the Department of the Environment, they have a potential impact on the built environment which is far-reaching. As the House and certainly the hon. Member for Melton will know, the inquiry carried out by Sir Robert Matthew and Mr. Skillington was initiated in 1972 by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). Its terms of reference were:
"to advise on the possible means of promoting high standards of design in Government building in the conservation of the built environment and in new physical development within the purview of the Secretary of State for the Environment; and to report on those means and their organisational implications."
The right hon. and learned Gentleman, whose suitability to the post of Secretary of State for the Environment was not noticed as widely as it should have been —he had a considerable experience in local government and had interests in all the matters pertaining to the Department—chose well.

Sir Robert Matthew is one of our leading architects, and in Mr. Skillington he was supported by a distinguished administrator with extensive experience of the construction responsibilities of government—and who was later to acquire certain more controversial experience to which the House will be turning its attention in the next few days. Their report is warmly to be commended for its valuable contribution towards the more effective promotion of good design. I am certain that the hon. Member for Melton will join with me on that point even though he and the Department have not been able to accept everything put forward.

However, in view of the wider interest in the report my right hon. Friend thought it right to consult widely on the findings. and in particular to seek the views of the professional institutions and the local authority associations. That consultation yielded a wide spectrum of views which my right hon. Friend was bound to take into account. This inevitably took time. The report was made public on 19th July last year and the decisions were announced only a few days ago.

The commissioning of the inquiry reflected the view that there was a need to strengthen the architectural contribution both to the Department of the Environment's wider environmental policies and to its works, and that view is also now taken by my right hon. Friend. That is not to say that the Department has cause to be ashamed of its record to date. A great deal has been done by those already working in the Department in the last year or two to develop more sensitive policies towards the built environment; policies which are more discriminating in deciding what to replace and what to conserve, which are better directed to moulding the pattern of change so as to blend the new with the old.

The steps now taken are therefore to be seen not as a big revolutionary leap forward, but as a further important move along a road on which we are already travelling. It is inapposite to use language such as alleging that the Property Services Agency is falling down on its job. It is an organisation which has been in existence for only a couple of years. It has not had time to fall down on its job. It is an organisation which is only getting into its stride.

Part I of the report deals with the Property Services Agency. My right hon. Friend entirely endorses what the report says about the potential influence of the PSA on architectural standards. Those who work in the agency have managed already to create a body representing the practical arm of the Department of the Environment in the area of constructional design. They and it are in a unique position to demonstrate in practice the significance of Government policies on the built environment. Those who work for the agency and are responsible for its activities are responsible for a large programme of building at home and abroad. The works for which the PSA is responsible include offices, law courts workshops, prisons, military installations, housing for the Armed Forces, embassies—a number of which I have visited—and a variety of specialised works.

The report, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, recommended the appointment of a chief architect in the PSA. As the hon. Member has said, we have instead appointed a Director General of Design Services. This difference is important. We have not appointed Mr. Lacey to be a chief architect but to be chief professional in relation to all the various forms of expertise involved in building design. This difference reflects the view, strongly held by many consulted on the report, that an enhancement of design standards depends on an integrated approach, embracing all the professions represented on design teams.

My right hon. Friend has accordingly welcomed the main proposition in Part I of the report that there should be a top-ranking professional in the PSA with the central aim of promoting high standards of design. As I have said, he has therefore created the new post of Director General of Design Services in the agency and he has appointed to it Mr. W. D. Lacey, an architect with a distinguished record of service in the Department of Education and Science and in local government. Mr. Lacey is a widely-respected figure in the architectural profession.

Mr. Lacey's job will be a key one. He will have deputy secretary status and play a full part in the top management of the agency. He will have both a general advisory rôle on design matters and direct control over a new multi-disciplinary design office. He will be particularly concerned with advising on recruitment and career management of professional staff, and with securing an effective contribution from private consultants towards the work of the agency. We must always be cautious about the engagement of outside consultants. Those who work in the agency can often be jealous of their position within the agency and rightly so.

Can the Minister say whether there is any significance in the fact that in A1(4) of the Vote there is a revised provision downwards in consultation fees for the coming year? Does this involve a policy indicating the use of fewer private architects?

There is no policy of the use of fewer private architects. It has been represented to us, in informal consultations with the staff, that they prefer the work to go to the agency. That is more economical and more sensible. It depends on the workload and the kind of work that comes to the agency—there is no specific policy.

The particular aspect of the job I have mentioned will be of vital importance in generating a cross-fertilisation of talent between the public and private sectors. Mr. Lacey will also be responsible for a range of technical development and other specialist work which is important not only to the Department of the Environment but to the construction industry as a whole—for example, development of "method of building", standardisation of building components and use of computerised design techniques. He is, however, to review the organisation of development work and will not retain responsibility for all of it.

Mr. Lacey's functions have not been exhaustively defined and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would not be sensible to do so before he takes up his post. There is no point in laying down a framework for a job which has only just been created and which we trust will go ahead under its own momentum. It is obvious that the job is a real one and is backed with due authority. Mr. Lacey has not been appointed to a vague advisory rôle on the sidelines but will take his place in the agency's top management team and have direct responsibility for a design office. He will not control the architects in the regions, and he wants to see how his first office goes before he considers any further changes. I am sure that that is right.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are willing to consider retitling P and T architects as architects. Discussions are currently in progress with the staff organisations on this matter.

The report suggested that in the longer term the new official should gradually extend his control over all the design work of the agency and that this should be organised in a series of design offices separate both from the client-oriented directorates at the agency's headquarters and from its regional organisation. We believe that we must proceed more cautiously and empirically.

The PSA has been in existence only since September 1972, and its creation followed other substantial changes in organisation, notably the establishment of the Department of the Environment itself in 1970, and measures taken by Sir Michael Cary in 1969 in the former Ministry of Public Building and Works to integrate professional and administrative staff. We have to be particularly careful that we do not impair the agency's high standards of service by superimposing one reorganisation on another.

When I use the phrase "high standards of service" I mean it. The PSA is a unique organisation. No other country has an organisation, with its standard, scope and integrity, quite like it. If the hon. Gentleman were to visit the PSA establishment in our High Commission in New Delhi, he would be enormously impressed with the work which is done there. It is a superb advertisement for the PSA and for British governmental methods.

Moreover, as was pointed out in several of the comments received on the report, we must beware of undoing the present integration of professional and administrative work which was brought about in the light of the Fulton Report and which has begun to bear fruit.

We believe that the changes we have now made will not only lead to an enhancement of the design standards of the agency's work but also exercise a wider beneficial influence in promoting environmental policies. We also believe that these changes will contribute towards a strengthening of the fruitful relationships between the Department and the construction industry.

Mr. Lacey's salary is budgeted for in the Estimates.

Part 2 of the report covers the Department in "its wider housing and planning role". Here I must point out, first, that problems in this area are in many ways more complex and less readily accessible to straightforward solutions. This point was acknowledged by the report, which, of course, diagnosed with a good deal of accuracy some of the shortcomings of the Department in meeting its responsibilities in relation to design standards. But it seemed clear at an early stage that the report's specific recommendations did not quite reflect the special character of the Department's rôle in respect of design. Nor did it adequately take into account the contribution of other authorities and professions.

Moreover, there had been a major development since the report was compiled, namely, publication of the White Paper on land—the hon. Gentleman referred to the relationship of the land legislation to what we have in mind—and this in particular was bound to cause a reappraisal of the report's recommendations.

It is vital to remember that the Department of the Environment's rôle in influencing design is indirect. There is much scope here, given the Department's close links with the construction industry and related professions, local authorities and other statutory bodies which actually build. But while day-to-day decisions rightly remain with the latter, the Department's rôle must largely remain advisory—and must, moreover, reach at more aspects of design than purely aesthetic ones.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but it seems to me that we are getting on to the policy issues involved in the report rather than keeping to the discipline which I tried to impose.

The hon. Member and I know that he has been running along the line of order a little bit, but mostly he has been in order.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you could help the Under-Secretary, and whether he could relate his remarks upon the rôle of the Environmental Board, as I did, to the increases in the salaries of the staff, because that would seem to be quite germane to the question.

I do not mind on what hook the Minister hangs his coat as long as it is covered by the Estimates.

I shall hang up my coat entirely fairly soon, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since I am coming towards the end of my remarks. I shall immediately veer back into order, having been given the most generous latitude by yourself, aided by the Red Cross flag of the hon. Member for Melton.

Perhaps I should resume with half a sentence of my argument, to get right back to the chief architect and his salary. I have listed the reservations which have led to the choice of a different solution from that represented by the chief architect and the Directorate of the Built Environment, as recommended in the report. Our reservations were reinforced by most of those who commented.

In the light of this a rather different solution was required, and in devising it the importance of the new proposals on development land has been given a proper place. It was because of this that we decided to set up the Environmental Board. The land proposals will entail ownership of all development land by the community and will place on local authorities new responsibilities for a broader and more positive approach to planning, development and design.

Thus came the decision to set up the Environmental Board. It has already been announced that its membership will include the Department's Chief Planner, the new Director General of Design Services in the PSA—Mr. Lacey—the Director General of Highways—I am now flooding the House with the names of personnel—the deputy secretaries responsible for housing and for the environmental group, and the newly appointed Industrial Adviser on Construction, Mr. Warren Evans, who took up his appointment at the beginning of the year. It will also include the deputy secretary in charge of planning in the South-East, whose responsibilities cover London planning—with all its implications in terms of development—and ancient monuments and historic buildings.

I can now announce that the chairman will be a second permanent secretary and that the names of candidates appointed from outside—local authorities and the private sector—will be announced by the Secretary of State very shortly.

At full strength the board will consist of between 12 and 14 members. The frequency of its meetings will be agreed when the chairman and his colleagues decide on the method of approaching the complex tasks ahead of them. But continuity as well as professional assistance will be provided by the senior multidisciplinary support team, on which staffing proposals are now being drawn up.

The first and major task of the board, supported by the team, will be to consider the environmental implications of the land proposals and particularly the guidance on which local authorities will need to draw to benefit in full from the scheme. We consider this to be of the utmost importance. There are complex new tasks ahead for both central and local government in which the fullest cooperation is required to ensure that the wide environmental consequences of the land programme shape in the best interests of the community as a whole. This involves design very crucially, but design seen in terms of the collective effort of many related skills and expertise. It is not a task for architectural skills alone.

That does not exhaust the board's remit. It will have wider duties to examine ways of assisting local government and others in the general exercise of planning powers with the aim of improvement to the built environment in every practical way.

Thus there are substantial tasks ahead of the board. The tasks identified by the report were substantial, and the report pointed clearly in the direction of the need for a high-powered board such as is now envisaged, combining wide experience and professional skills and supported by an appropriately mixed senior professional team. I have every confidence that this is the right way to tackle the job ahead, and it is especially gratifying that my right hon. Friend's proposals have received a wide welcome in the professional journals and from many others who have taken a particular interest in these matters.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. If I have not answered some of the precise statistical questions he raised, I shall write to him and give him all the information he requires.