Paradigm Lost by Joe Holyoak

19th October 2010

On the day of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, October 20th, I wrote an elegiac Endpiece for this issue, anticipating regretfully the demise of a number of familiar institutions. The previous day I had been at the final event held by RegenWM, the Regeneration Centre of Excellence for the West Midlands, which was closing down following the decision by the RDA Advantage West Midlands, itself with the axe tickling its neck, to end its funding. At the event, which was combined with the presentation of the final annual awards for good regeneration practice, the Chief Executive, Adrian Passmore, spoke of being part of a paradigm which has ground to a halt.

I don’t have the political science vocabulary to define this paradigm, but I do recognise its flavour even if I can’t name it, and it has shaped the context in which I have taught and practised for the past decade since Towards an Urban Renaissance.  Some of its components have been CABE, the RDAs, the HMRAs, the regional architecture centres, Building Schools for the Future, the HCA and the Egan Report. I don’t believe that its termination by the coalition government is simply a pragmatic response to the money running out; the decision is expediency in the service of an ideology that is in opposition to publicly-funded regional bodies that seek to educate and elevate the market. I can’t put a name either to the new paradigm that is likely to succeed it, but I fear that it is not going to assist us in making better places, to put it mildly.

That drafted Endpiece was heartfelt but a bit unspecific, apart from the bit about RegenWM, and I wasn’t fully satisfied with it. But I was about to email it the following day when in quick succession I received two emails. The first was from Richard Simmons, Chief Executive of CABE, telling of DCMS’s decision to end its funding of CABE, and his bitter disappointment at this news. The second was from a colleague who is a conservation officer in Birmingham City Council, which the previous week had announced a 30% cull of jobs in the Planning and Regeneration Department. She told me that her team of six conservation officers, which in March had already lost its team leader post, was to be reduced to two. Suddenly, the generalised concerns I had expressed in my Endpiece felt very real and immediate.

CABE’s shrinkage had already impinged on me personally, my role as Regional Representative having disappeared earlier in 2010. But the possibility that the organisation itself might disappear I find almost unthinkable. It has been an enormous force for good since 2000, promoting good practice and setting higher standards, and demonstrating critically that good design is good business. At the time of writing we await news of CABE’s fate from DCLG, without any great hopes.

The news about the cull of the conservation team came a week after I had been publicising the Victorian Society’s annual Top Ten Endangered Buildings. Our region has two buildings in the list, about which I am unsure whether we should be pleased or not; the wonderful Wedgwood Institute in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, and the ex-Moseley School of Art in Birmingham, both listed Grade II*, and neglected. The Victorian Society has been pressuring the conservation officers in Birmingham for years to take action against the owners of the crumbling School of Art, with little success. The City Council’s conservation strategy document is called Regeneration through Conservation, but in fact other forms of regeneration often appear to take priority over sensible conservation. This unsatisfactory situation is clearly going to get much worse. How two conservation officers, in a city of one million people, can carry out more than a tiny fraction of the Council’s statutory duties towards listed buildings, I cannot imagine. The paradigm shift is here.

Joe Holyoak

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