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Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Dissolution) Order 2012

Volume 734: debated on Monday 16 January 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Dissolution) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 36th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, in 2005 Parliament passed the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act. The Act turned the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, an arm’s-length body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, into a statutory corporation. The commission, or CABE as it is more commonly known, was originally created in 1999 to replace the Royal Fine Art Commission as England’s champion for promoting high standards in architecture and urban design. Part 8 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act also provided that CABE could be dissolved by affirmative order, and it is an order under those provisions that we are considering today.

The order provides for the dissolution of CABE. It transfers the remaining property, rights and liabilities of CABE immediately before the date of dissolution to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. The order also makes provision for the final report and accounts for CABE, and contains consequential repeals and revocations.

The dissolution of CABE is an outcome of the comprehensive spending review of October 2010. While we recognised the important role that CABE has played in promoting well designed buildings and public spaces, we judged that the most pressing need was to protect and maintain other parts of our culture and heritage. As a result, we reluctantly decided to withdraw CABE’s DCMS funding after 2011-12. CABE was jointly funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and, in the light of DCMS’s decision, DCLG indicated that its funding for CABE would cease after 2010-11. Therefore, CABE was unable to continue as a public body, and a controlled closure was implemented. The majority of CABE’s operations ceased with effect from 31 March 2011 and it was mostly wound up by 30 September 2011, when its remaining staff and commissioners left.

Some of CABE’s activities, principally design review, are now being carried out by the Design Council CABE, a subsidiary of the Design Council. This is being funded initially by a DCLG grant of £2.75 million a year for two financial years 2011-13. As a result, on 1 April 2011, 19 CABE staff transferred to the Design Council under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations.

In addition, on 30 September 2011, Engaging Places, the built environment education programme that CABE ran with English Heritage, was transferred to the architecture centre Open City Architecture, together with one full-time permanent member of staff and a one-off grant of £100,000 from DCMS.

CABE did excellent and valuable work for DCMS in the past; the decision to withdraw funding was not taken lightly and should not in any way be taken as a criticism of CABE's performance. Indeed, I would like to pay tribute to CABE’s work; it helped to raise the standards of design in housing, health and infrastructure buildings, schools, town centres and public spaces across England. Since 1999, CABE reviewed the design of over 3,000 of the most significant development proposals to come forward during a period of architectural renaissance in England. I am happy to say that the records of these are now preserved at the National Archives, providing a fascinating snapshot of major schemes in the first 10 years of the new millennium.

In this year of the London Olympics and Paralympics, it is worth recalling CABE’s role in helping the Olympic Delivery Authority to make certain that good design and value for money were at the heart of the project. CABE ran a special London 2012 design review panel and contributed to the design development of 26 schemes and the Olympic Park. The Olympic Delivery Authority believes that CABE’s advice was vital in making sure design quality was delivered.

Although the department would have liked to continue to fund CABE’s work in driving up the quality of design in the built environment, in the present financial situation it seemed more important to protect the wider culture and heritage sectors. Hence the dissolution order before us today. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation.

The future of CABE has been the subject of some controversy since the coalition Government came to power and I, for one, very much regretted its demise. At the time, it felt like it was just too easy for Jeremy Hunt to offer it up for sacrifice in the first round of spending cuts without really appreciating the arguments as to why advice and guidance on architectural standards and living space was so necessary both for the industry and consumers of design. I am very well aware that CABE’s work and advice were not universally popular, but this is not surprising in an area such as architecture, which is notoriously controversial. However, I believe that, overall, CABE’s legacy is an overwhelmingly positive contribution to design standards in this country.

I talked about CABE’s demise, to which the Minister also referred, but of course part of CABE’s function has now been rescued by the merger with the Design Council, which, in the circumstances, I accept was the best that could be achieved. As I understand it, the merger has effectively already taken place, so the order is, in effect, a tidying-up exercise. However, what is not clear to me—perhaps the Minister could clarify this—is why the assets and functions are being transferred back to the department rather than to the Design Council. What is the legal status of the merger with the Design Council? Is a separate order being prepared that will set out the new role for the Design Council in embracing some of CABE’s functions?

A cynic might suggest that the drafting of the order delivers the complete abolition of CABE with no future legal requirement on the Government to facilitate architectural advice and standards, whereas I had understood that the settlement—a more constructive merger with the Design Council—would maintain those functions at a national level. Also, as the order stands, it would be open to the Minister to cease funding the CABE activities that will now take place within the Design Council without any further reference to Parliament. Is that what is intended? Perhaps the Minister could shed some more light on the processes taking place here.

As the Minister mentioned, if there is one thing that we have already learnt from the Olympics, it is that the UK has some of the finest designers in the world and we know how to create iconic and stunning designs that are also practical and sustainable. Unfortunately, our record on housing design is rather more woeful. The new proposed planning framework is understandably causing consternation that more poor-quality estates that clash with the local environment will spring up, against the wishes of local communities. Surely this is where an organisation such as CABE, even under its new arrangements, could help by working with local authorities and communities to help them to understand the advantages of quality, well built homes, effective landscaping and attractive use of space. Can the Minister confirm that this is the type of role envisaged for the Design Council in the future, that it will be written into its terms of reference and that adequate funding will be provided to ensure that this can be carried out?

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on these issues and, on the assumption of a positive response, we will support the order.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her contribution and for her questions. I quite understand that she regretted the demise of CABE, whose contribution she respected, as we all did.

On where CABE’s responsibilities lie, some of them now lie with the Design Council and some lie with DCMS. They have been distributed, as I think it says in the order.

On the merger with the Design Council, it is very important that the two elements of the leading bodies come together so that local communities are given greater opportunities to have their say on these areas and on the look and feel for the future. The Design Council has been strengthened by bringing in the valuable skills, knowledge and expertise from CABE to create a one-stop shop that will provide a service to industry, councils and local communities. Without the prospect of further funding for CABE from other sources, the remainder of CABE had to be wound up and the organisation dissolved and any remaining property, rights, including those relating to employees, and functions are to be transferred to the Secretary of State. The general proposal was agreed in principle by Ministers in all three departments affected, and the legal status for the dissolution of CABE was agreed in Cabinet in February 2011.

On the transfer of CABE’s statutory functions, while the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act allows for the transfer of CABE’s statutory functions to another organisation, we decided that this was not necessary or appropriate. However the royal charter of the Design Council has been amended to incorporate functions similar to CABE’s. This allows the Government to provide funding under the authority of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act to the Design Council for carrying out similar activities to those carried out by CABE.

The noble Baroness asked about CABE’s legal status. That has already been taken care of by amending the Design Council's royal charter and the transfer of undertakings and agreements between CABE and the Design Council. The assets and liabilities will remain with the DCMS and the rest have already been transferred to the Design Council.

Despite DCMS's difficulty with the spending review decision, architectural design remains an important priority for the Government, as the noble Baroness said. Part of CABE lives on in the Design Council and Spaceshaper and Engaging Places were found new homes. Above all, the draft planning policy framework demonstrates that the Government attach great importance to the design of the built environment. Our objective for the planning system is to promote good design that makes attractive any usable and durable places, which is a key element in achieving sustainable development. In addition, both the construction strategy and the housing strategy reflect the importance that the Government place on the role of good design. If I have missed any points, I will of course be in touch with the noble Baroness.

I want to put on record my particular regard for CABE. I saw at first hand how it made a tremendous impact on the quality of architecture, design and open space in Liverpool. The sense of realism and dedication ended in developments that were at the cutting edge.

Although I am delighted that to some extent the work will continue in the Design Council, my great concern, which the Minister has allayed to some extent, is that we do not want to live in a society where our surroundings and architecture are of poor quality. We do not want the bog standard. We want our design and architecture to be cutting-edge. I am sure that that will continue.

I do not know the details, but one of the other areas of CABE’s work with which I was terribly impressed was how it was able to work with English Heritage. That partnership of heritage and architectural environment was hugely important. It was good to see those two bodies coming closer together. I hope that that is also something that we are aware of.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Storey for speaking on this order. I could not agree with him more that we do not want to see poor quality architecture. I know that developments that have happened in Liverpool such as Tate Modern and others have been of a really high standard and very exciting.

The noble Lord raised another point regarding CABE and English Heritage. It was decided that merging CABE with a heritage body was not appropriate because CABE’s impact rested on its wide freedom to offer independent advice and support directly to third parties. Merging it with a body that has statutory responsibility for protecting the historic environment would have compromised that. I hope that the noble Lord understands that. He was right to mention the importance of CABE in the quality of the work done.

Motion agreed.