When will politicians start giving the built environment the attention that it deserves, asks Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

The latest Conservative Party leadership election (the third in seven years) has served up little for those hoping for answers to Britain’s growing litany of crises. Less still for those concerned about the state of our built environment. Instead, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have proved themselves experts in evading substantive issues around housing and the climate emergency.

Over the past 12 years the British state and the public services it once provided have been systematically eviscerated. Our public buildings are crumbling, with hospitals on the verge of both organisational and literal structural collapse. The climate emergency has highlighted the inadequacy of our buildings in the face of ever more frequent extreme weather events. Millions lack decent affordable housing.

This all at the same time as public debt and taxation have skyrocketed and inflation hits highs not seen in four decades. Fuel prices are pushing millions into poverty and threaten a bleak winter for many.

To try and highlight the appalling quality of most of what is being built in the country amid this chaos can seem futile - a pointless Canute-like attempt at holding back a tide of architectural mediocrity. But the state of the built environment, beyond a minority of architect-designed projects, is poor.

In this political climate, the built environment and any concern with its quality only registers as some peripheral culture-wars issue to be bandied around as red meat to the Tory base. Government ministers are more concerned about milking the rage around statues than talking about the importance of good design. 

Meanwhile the two candidates for leader of the Tory party have proven themselves lacking in any real ideas to address even our most fundamental economic problems. In the case of Truss, she seems to not only lack ideas, but is in active denial that the problems exist in the first place.

Truss denies the urgency of the climate emergency and claims that tax cuts – and tax cuts alone – are the answer to every conceivable problem. This is the politics of burying one’s head in the sand.

Could it be that we look back on Johnson, with his love of mega infrastructure and sea-spanning bridges, with some kind of nostalgia?

Her message is full of empty platitudes about British exceptionalism, while her side-kick Jacob Rees Mogg tries to distract us with nonsense about how slashing unnamed “EU” regulation will ignite the Brexit boosters under the economy.

Boris Johnson’s approach to the built environment may have been that of provincial boosterism, but he at least recognised some of the problems the country faces, such as deep-rooted structural inequalities between north and south. Could it be that we look back on Johnson, with his love of mega infrastructure and sea-spanning bridges, with some kind of nostalgia?

Perhaps not. Despite his “levelling-up” rhetoric it is doubtful whether he had any meaningful answers in any case. The north-south divide has only grown exponentially during his time in Number 10.

Underlining the obstinacy of the Tory party when it comes to spending money on the left behind areas that actually need it, Sunak recently boasted about how he had cut funding to poor inner-city areas so that it could be diverted to wealthy Tory-voting districts such as Tunbridge Wells.

A recent IPPR report suggests that, during the five years prior to 2019/20, London was given £12,147 per person in public funding, in contrast to £8,125 in the North.

It would be some consolation if we were able to point to the political opposition for leadership. But Keir Starmer and his largely invisible front bench seem as devoid of ideas as the Tories. A deafening silence emanates from the Labour Party on almost anything related to the built environment.

For all his toxicity with Middle England, and mendacity on antisemitism, Jeremy Corbyn did offer policy answers to Britain’s big problems. Many of them were tried and tested policies lifted from Germany, although they were bizarrely portrayed as extreme left in much of Britain’s brazenly partisan right-wing media.

There is no such strong or visionary politcal leadership from within the current architectural profession, although we abound in activists and well-intentioned messaging

I wrote recently on the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s 1997 landslide about how that election ushered in at least some semblance of a coherent built environment policy in the UK. No matter how flawed some of those policies were, the last Labour government was at least engaged in a debate about what form our built future should take.

In no small part that was thanks to the concerted efforts and unparalleled influencing skills of Richard Rogers. He was a Labour party member and sat on the Labour benches in the Lords, but he had the networks and commercial savvy of a successful businessperson. There is no such strong or visionary politcal leadership from within the current architectural profession, although we abound in activists and well-intentioned messaging. 

Labour today seems to lack Rogers’ passion for cities and his pursuasive political instincts. It looks like a party paralysed by fear, afraid of putting the slightest foot wrong.

It’s aversion to bold or even simply optimistic policy ideas may seem more of a hindrance as the next election approaches, as voters ponder what on earth a visionless Labour Party has to offer a nation palpably in the grips of decline.

Today we find out who will be the new prime minister, but tomorrow we will be faced with the same problems and most probably the same old failed policies. It does not need to be like this – lurching from crisis to crisis, led by politicians who behave like hapless weathervanes rather than leaders.

There are solutions out there – from mass council house building, to intelligent infrastructure, English devolution and community wealth building – that can begin to address many of the UK’s problems. When will we be offered the chance to elect the political leadership to implement them?