Farrell's review undermines the profession

The Farrell review has been hailed by many – but it furthers the government's anti-democratic agenda and weakens the role of the architect

The Farrell Review has been hailed by the RIBA. The government too is delighted – as well it should be, for the report is a cheerleader for most of the trends in planning and architecture it has promoted.

Let us start by being parochial and focus on what the report recommends for the future of architects and the role of the profession. Farrell recommends the abolition of ARB, with its functions taken over by the RIBA. He says: ‘For as long as protection of title is retained, the Architects Act should be amended to make the RIBA the registration body’. That sounds like something we should applaud, but look a little more closely. He also states: ‘The protection of title for architects while there is no protection of the function of architectural design is misguided.’ Nowhere does he advocate the protection of function and so he is quite clearly proposing that architects should have neither protection of function nor protection of title.

The report makes much use of the acronym PLACE and proposes a ‘PLACE Space’ in every major town. While, to many, this might sound like a well-meaning, happy-clappy, social venue, PLACE in fact stands for the serious business of planning/landscape/architecture/conservation/engineering. Farrell clarifies the notion of PLACE thus: ‘Everyone has a piece of the puzzle to help make PLACE the picture on the box.’ More worryingly, the former primary leadership role of architects has been reduced to one of parity with landscaping and other professions.

The real agenda of community participation is to leapfrog over the democratically elected councillors, pre-empting their decision-making role.

One of the major themes of the Farrell Review – or “FAR” as we are encouraged to call it, for as the text spells out, this might invoke the idea of “far-sighted” – is the centralising of decision making. In promoting this it uses the populist government language of community participation. Anyone who has on-the-ground experience of ‘community participation’ knows it is, in practice, invariably a meaningless exercise with various sectional interests vying to get their voice heard, and organised meetings that are no more than box-ticking exercises to prove ‘consultation’. If there is any local input it is more likely to be local business interests muscling in. The real agenda is to leapfrog over the democratically elected councillors pre-empting their decision-making role. Community consultation, localism, call it what you will, in reality works to move decision-making to Whitehall.

This is a natural extension of government policy, which was clearly signalled by the abolition of the regional development agencies soon after the coalition took office. The RDAs were far from perfect but the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004 had initiated the so-called regional spatial strategies providing a necessary tier of decision-making between the centre and the local authorities. Regional planning is essential for an advanced nation and what is probably the most important book on planning of recent years, Suburban Nation (Duany, Plater-Zyberg, Speck, 2000) states: ‘Regional planning manages urban growth at the scale of people’s daily lives... The absence of regional vision plagues [town] planners.’ This vital wisdom is totally lost on the coalition and indeed on Farrell. With the demise of the RDAs the work on regional spatial strategies went in the rubbish bin.

In one of his few valuable proposals, Farrell says that planning should be more proactive. But the 2004 legislation attempted to address this with the creation of the regional spatial strategies  and their local counterparts, the local development frameworks, providing a system for integrating regional, local and national policy. With the regional spatial strategies  scrapped and local authorities undermined by the localism agenda, the way is clear for Whitehall domination. So if more proactive planning is to appear, it can only come from one place.

This is bolstered by the proposal for a chief architect working in Whitehall. Farrell is careful to define the role as ensuring that ‘built environment professionals are better represented’ – once again subsuming the architect’s role into a collective of disciplines.

But centralisation is also promoted by a tool already in use – and which Farrell wants extended enormously: that of design panels. In addition to CABE and others, there will be a ‘PLACE Review’ panel in permanent session evaluating all government-funded projects. The appointed architect is not trusted to handle the job.

Design panels place architects and others in judgment of schemes by architects when there is often nothing to suggest their members make better decisions than anyone else other than official favour. Let’s be clear: design panels seek to undermine the role of the architect, questioning his or her judgment and negotiation. But their members are not exposed to loss if things go wrong as the architect is. The cheque they receive with an agreeable social event and a good lunch flatters their opinion and magnifies their sense of importance ,while they walk away carrying no burden of responsibility for their decisions.

But Farrell likes design panels for they combat what he calls the ‘disaggregated nature of expertise... in the built environment’. Again the role of the architect is to lose its distinctive nature as aggregation of the professions takes place.

Farrell proposes a fine-sounding wish list of generalised ideas: ‘a new level of connectedness between government departments, institutions, agencies, profession and the public’, ‘a new level of public engagement through education and outreach’, ‘ a culture change... to get more people involved’, etc. How are all these desirable objectives to be achieved? Farrell’s solution: a brand new shiny quango. Its name is intended to advertise that his thinking is joined up, from top to bottom: the PLACE Leadership Council.

The idea that such a new body, however well funded and however well salaried its leaders, could achieve anything positive by meddling in the affairs of government ignores how political power really works. It is impossible to imagine how the PLACE quango could make much headway in tackling the above wish list or engage in the type of proactive planning that Farrell rightly advocates.

FAR is truly far from the direction we actually need, damaging to the architectural profession, undermining to the ability of the profession to represent properly the public and the clients it serves, destructive of local democracy, silent on the need for regional planning, and hopelessly irrelevant in putting all its faith in a new quango to implement its proposals.

Peter Kellow RIBA is an architect and writer living in Toulouse. For more on Peter Kellow’s views on the position of the architectural profession go to www.kellow.net