Stuart Lipton is right about Cabe’s impact. But the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission won’t make a jot of difference, predicts Martyn Evans

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This week Stuart Lipton and Terry Farrell waded into the skirmish over the appointment of Roger Scruton to head up the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The row over his appointment will rumble on, but really it’s all just noise emanating from weak policy-making by a government meddling at the margins of the problem of good development instead of using its power properly to convene, cajole, inspire, regulate and invest.

Modest amounts of money and weak planning policy measures are announced in response to the debate about our housing problems. Ministers justify the level at which they’re able to tinker by lamenting the state of public finances and reminding us that it’s not their job to build housing but to encourage and enable the private sector. I’ve written before on these pages about how flawed that argument is. There is no need to re-hash it here. But still that doesn’t answer the vital questions: How are we going to build more houses? How are we going to make them more affordable? How are we going to encourage housebuilders to understand the huge responsibility they have in making the places where people live?

The ideology that drives this government means it always wants to find its answer in the market and where that doesn’t work easily, it commissions reports, sets up advisory bodies and tinkers with financial policy to encourage more private-sector compliance. None of which will tackle the fundamental, underlying problem.

But, for now, it’s a system we’re stuck with. So what to do? Stuart Lipton’s suggestion is to breathe new life into Cabe, which has never really recovered from the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos in 2010/11. A lot of Cabe’s work was designed to deliver central government policy on the ground by advising and persuading instead of legislating and requiring. The Labour administration wanted to devolve power and responsibility to local government but then, of course, it couldn’t control what happened. So, rafts of quangos were established, including Cabe, to “help” local government do the right thing.

Cabe did good work. The huge body of work it produced in the 10 years it existed as a stand-alone body is testament to the quality of the people who worked there and the support it had from central government. Perhaps the most successful element of its work was the design review service which delivered consistently good advice to developers and local authority planners. It succeeded because it built for itself a reputation for quality. Smart people were attracted to join its advisory panels, local authority planning departments trusted its advice and developers knew they’d have an easier ride through planning if they properly engaged with Cabe design review, listened to what it said and adapted their schemes accordingly. There was a fair exchange of money to fund the service and everyone benefited.

This is how government intervention has to work. If it can’t invest itself, or won’t properly legislate to require change, then it has to offer its advice to its private-sector audience and show how following that advice will deliver a better bottom line. It has to bring developers and planners to the table together and encourage mutual respect and show how greater profits can be driven from better places and happier people.

Unless private-sector developers, housing associations and their funders who deliver real change on the ground know that advice generated from government-sponsored bodies has teeth and will significantly improve their business, then it’s all just talk.

Can you imagine how many property developers are debating who should run the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission this morning? Do you think a single one of them is even going to give it the remotest thought? If advice coming out of government talking shops is irrelevant and ineffective, then argument about the relevance of the people appointed to run them is worse – just chatter on the wind.