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Friday, March 31, 2006
Nick Serota on the role of CABE
Of course, just after I write a minorly stinging post about CABE in the Gateway, I read Serota's interesting piece in BD (subscribers only) about the role of CABE. I will just quote the whole lot rather than post comment:

It is the lot of advisory bodies, especially those funded by government, to be on the receiving end of accusations that they are either not toeing the line by slavishly praising the latest government policy initiative, or that they are supine recipients of taxpayer largesse, content to do the government's bidding.

As is widely known, much of what we do on specific projects is pre-planning, and does not, therefore, make the sort of shock-horror headlines that are BD's stock-in-trade. That work is not something we brag about. We have no desire to expose to criticism architects, clients and planning authorities who are trying to improve significant projects by involving Cabe at a stage when design is fluid, and change is still economical in terms of both time and money.

However, the design review spectrum is not, on its own, a sufficient model by which to assess Cabe's performance. In our enabling or regional programmes, for instance, we are not behaving as watchdogs, but as constructive contributors to what we hope will be a better built environment.

Cabe Space has campaigned for better public realm, not from the stance of an aesthetics police officer, but from a basis of experience and commitment to helping local authorities and others provide better environments for all. Parkforce, our campaign for on-site park staff, has inspired people to rethink the way they manage their public spaces. In many areas, dedicated teams now welcome the public to safe and well-managed parks, and 110 councils have signed a pledge to follow their lead.

At the level of public policy, we find quiet diplomacy can often be rather more effective than headline-grabbing grandstanding. So, for example, our own efforts to encourage the idea of "smart PFI" (a phrase coined by Cabe's deputy chairman) have been far from negligible, and we are delighted that the RIBA's parallel efforts have found success. We can claim to have paved the way on this, though the journey to come is likely to be long and arduous.

Cabe's media critics have condemned us for not opposing John Prescott's housing demolition policies root and branch - from the assumption that we oppose them really, but are too frightened to say. Having conducted a number of visits to the relevant cities, we understand only too well why the policy has been introduced, and believe that, at a strategic level, it has merit. The way it is implemented is another matter, as Cabe design review reports are beginning to show.

Cabe has influenced more than £20 billion of government spending on building projects, and 20 million people will pass each year just through the hospitals and primary care buildings with which we have been involved. Our new campaign for better neighbourhood healthcare buildings, Designed with Care, involves country-wide workshops during the summer and autumn to educate health professionals and Lift companies on the contribution of design quality to the health of communities.

Ellen Bennett, author of last week's feature, confessed she was unable to find outspoken critics of Cabe, and attributes this to a cosy establishment network. Could it be instead that a young organisation that champions excellent design is seen to deserve support, by architects and far-sighted local authorities and developers?

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