The Labour leader’s speech provided a timely reminder of the complex challenges Britain faces, as well as the hope that they can be overcome, writes Chris Williamson

Williamson_chris2_in studio by Dan Fontanelli for Cure3, 2018

Source: Dan Fontanelli

Chris Williamson

Much of the architectural press might have focused on Sir Keir Starmer’s new towns pledge in yesterday’s conference speech – his promise to build one and half million new homes. But there was just as much of relevance in his plans for rebuilding the social fabric of the country – social mobility is an issue at the heart of our industry. Even now, only 15% of architects come from a background where their parents are not professionals.

The Labour leader referred to the “disrespect of vocational skills” his father felt. We need vocational skills and there should be no stigma in that, but we also need equality of opportunity. As he said, “the solution is not and never will be levelling-down the working-class aspiration to go to university.”

This resonated with me. Although I had the most fantastic free education and inspirational teachers at Ilkeston Grammar School, architecture – or any of the ‘professions’ for that matter – simply wasn’t suggested to someone like me. Originally, I had a place to study graphic design at Leicester Polytechnic. But then, one wet Wednesday lunchtime, I picked up a small paperback book in the school library called ‘Your Architect’ by Derek Senior, with illustrations by David Rock.

I found it intriguing, for its talk of social responsibility and communities as much as design. So, I begged Leicester to let me study architecture instead. Without doubt, the best decision I have ever made. In that sense, you could call mine a story of luck – and timing. A university education before tuition fees, in a different time, politically and socially.

This was in the East Midlands, in Ilkeston, a town hit by the decline of industry, manufacturing, by rail cuts, a high street hollowed out by edge of town superstores. Today, these places are too often seen as problems, not places with problems. But Starmer is right to highlight the “possibility in working people in the parts of our country ignored, passed over, disregarded as sources of growth and dynamism but with the potential ready to be unlocked.”

In 2021, I bought a semi-derelict Methodist church in Ilkeston and turned it into Ilkon, a gallery and community space for the local area. What this has taught me – or rather, reminded me – is that the concept of levelling-up is purely a rebalancing of economic, cultural and social advantages. It is wrong for anyone to read it as a levelling-up of talent. 

This is already there in spades, along with passion, determination and creativity. Starmer is right to identify it is to be ‘unlocked’ and not built. His strategy? “A British jobs bonus that will attract new investment to our industrial heartlands from Bridgend to Burnley. The backbone of Britain, once again powering us towards national renewal.”

When it comes to social mobility, a university education is only part of the story, because sometimes, it is the visibility and understanding of a job that makes the difference, and gives the sense that a profession is open to you. Last month, I began my term leading the Architects’ Company in the City of London – not something I could have imagined a few decades ago, because the first time I was invited to come along to a livery event, I didn’t even make it through the door. I looked through the window, didn’t think I would fit in, so left.

I was about 30 and it would be some years later before the opportunity presented itself again. I’m glad I made it over the threshold, grateful for the years of friendship, the professional experiences and purpose that have followed. The question now, is how do we get more people from different backgrounds, with that interest in shaping where they live and work, into architecture – and not help them fit in, but help them see how this career could fit them.

The final point in Starmer’s speech to touch on is an understanding of the role of infrastructure in the delivery of any of these plans. This is vital. Having worked on so many major rail and transport projects in my career, it was reassuring to hear that housebuilding would be considered along with the services needed to support new communities. Still, instead of the rhetoric on “roads, tunnels, power stations” it would have been better to hear “railways, cycle routes, photovoltaics.”

It’s certainly not radical to see the value of building where there are good jobs, infrastructure and land for affordable homes. Yet this has still eluded many governments. There was recognition too of the importance of parks and green spaces, but he was pragmatic in his assessment that not all land classed as green belt is green and pleasant. Some of it is “disused car parks, dreary wasteland… a grey belt.”

There is much in Starmer’s speech to feel optimistic about. The prospect of a long-term vision, the end of ‘sticking plaster politics.’ Fixing tomorrow’s problems today might be sloganeering, but in a climate emergency, with an increasingly divided nation and volatile world, it’s the hope we need.