Centralised control from Westminster has infantilised the nation and eroded the quality of our built environment, says Ben Flatman. It’s time to put the UK government under special measures

Ben Flatman

For decades now governments of all political persuasions have been centralising power in Westminster. Recently this trend has accelerated, particularly in England, with a catastrophic economic and social impact. Control over more and more spending and key decisions has been concentrated in the hands of ministers and Whitehall civil servants, stifling democracy and enterprise and breeding the sense of powerlessness that helped create Brexit. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe can now be found in the UK. Outside pockets of immense wealth, swathes of the country are visibly failing, or at best just getting by. It’s no coincidence that the UK also ranks as among the most centralised states in the developed world.

The knock-on effect on the built environment has been devastating. Public services and the public buildings, such as libraries, through which they were once delivered have been decimated. Local authorities, desperate for investment, increasingly see any private sector development as good development. Poor-quality housing and the associated retail and leisure tat that accumulates around it is now the norm. The areas that attract this kind of investment are likely to see themselves as lucky. For the less fortunate places, a more straightforward slide into poverty and hopelessness often beckons. Private architectural opulence and public squalor have become commonplace in a country that has seen homelessness and inequality spiralling out of control.

In many parts of the UK the very concept of a civic-minded architectural culture has ceased to exist. The wealthy local elites that once endowed public buildings are long gone, their functions and powers of patronage now largely agglomerated in London and the south-east. The public sector that briefly filled the gap as enlightened architectural patron has been eviscerated and, in places such as Barnet, reduced to a mere outsourcer of minimal services.

And so the nation stands beholden to Whitehall for nearly all public taxation and spending. The prevailing mentality towards architecture within central government is encapsulated by prime ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s proud boast that the government wouldn’t “be getting any award-winning architects to design [state schools], because no one… is here to make architects richer”. But what if local communities around the country chose to think differently about the value of good architecture in education? By nationalising state secondary schools and funding them directly from Whitehall, our centralising government has ensured that local voices are now rarely heard in this debate. Different standards of course apply at our top private schools, where award-winning architecture is valued, not denigrated.

A visit to almost any part of the country reveals the resulting desperately low design standards that are now typical in our built environment. Hundreds of Britain’s Victorian era towns and cities, which once bore witness to passionately engaged debates about the merits of gothic versus classical design, have been reduced to barely functioning shells. Often the civil society within which this architectural discourse previously existed has been eroded to the point of extinction. Local newspapers, which used to provide a forum for architectural debates, have withered and died in their hundreds.

The idea that our entire national life can be micromanaged from Westminster and Whitehall is not just outdated but dangerous. Central government is now perceived as so detached from the concerns of ordinary voters that increasing numbers appear to be open to a shift towards autocracy. The Hansard Society, which monitors British voters’ attitudes, recently warned that there was an increasing receptiveness to authoritarian politics. The rise of a demagogue such as Nigel Farage illustrates the real dangers now facing us.

Whatever side of the political divide one sits on, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our current system of government is broken. We are about to witness the Tory party and its unrepresentative no-deal Brexit-supporting members select our prime minister for the second time in four years. In 2016 at least Theresa May acknowledged the challenges facing those who were “just managing” in the broken Britain she inherited. Today Boris Johnson offers a no-deal Brexit that Parliament has already rejected, and tax cuts for the rich. It’s a travesty of democracy and risks further destabilising what is already a dangerously divided nation.

In the wake of the EU referendum in 2016 I argued that “taking back control” required a radical shake-up in how the UK, and England in particular, was governed. Everything we have witnessed from the Westminster circus since then demonstrates how far our national representatives still are from understanding the type of change that is needed. If the UK government was a local council it would have been put into special measures years ago, and yet it carries on with its failed centralising agenda regardless.

On Monday this week a string of northern English media outlets issued a joint call for action against this Westminster-based myopia and complacency, entitled Power Up the North. Supported by several leading northern politicians, the campaign calls for the UK government to:

  • · Deliver a fundamental shift in decision-making out of London, giving devolved powers and self-determination to people in the north;
  • · Commit funding immediately to make Northern Powerhouse Rail a national priority;
  • · Overhaul the region’s road and rail network as a part of a wider environmental plan, with devolved funding and powers;
  • · Put full weight behind a bespoke industrial strategy for the north of England to enable every sector of the economy, from manufacturing to farming, to flourish;
  • · Make additional investment available for the north’s schools, colleges and universities to boost skills training;
  • · Set out a programme to build a new generation of social housing and affordable homes;
  • · Accelerate investment in the north’s digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and support creative industries;
  • · Commit to the government’s “shared prosperity fund”, intended to replace EU structural funding, being fully devolved in long-term tranches to enable strategic decisions of scale rather than areas having to bid for smaller amounts, piecemeal.

These are the kinds of policies that are taken for granted among our wealthy north European neighbours, and many of the more affluent parts of the United States. Devolved decision-making helps deliver the prosperity, as well as the healthy and diverse civil societies, on which great architecture also depends. These aren’t just changes required in the north of England – they are urgently need across the whole of the UK.