What ‘taking back control’ means for architects

A sense of lack of control is a common concern in our globalised economy. Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign was the invitation to “Take back control”. Advocates for Brexit argued that the pooling of UK sovereignty in Brussels meant the electorate had lost control of the political process, and that this had contributed to growing disillusionment with domestic politics. If, as the Brexiteers claim, leaving the EU is about redressing this perceived democratic deficit, then we must now also examine how we govern ourselves within our own borders.

The UK, or at least England, has one of the most centralised systems of government in the developed world. Successive Conservative and Labour administrations have concentrated ever greater power in Westminster. Our cities and towns have been largely stripped of the powers to raise taxes, borrow, invest and innovate. Civic leaders are subjected to the humiliation of going cap in hand to unelected Whitehall officials to beg funding for even the most modest project. For decades, the latent enterprise of Britain’s cities and regions has been stifled by draconian centralised spending limits, and the dead hand of the mandarin class. Scandalously, control over dispensing taxpayers’ own money has largely become the sole privilege of central government ministers and their civil servants.

Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country

The vote to leave the EU is therefore both a challenge and an opportunity that architects must confront. It is no coincidence that the emasculation of our local government – including within London itself – has been paralleled by a declining role for architects in the public life of our towns and cities. Communities stripped of the power to run their own affairs, and micro-managed by central government, have little motivation to engage with the critical discussions concerning their built environments from which so much of the quality of everyday life is derived. 

The new prime minister promises more control for ordinary people, and surely this must translate into real devolution of power from Westminster to the country at large. Architects should take advantage of this moment to agitate for a renaissance in local accountability. And the government in Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country. Active and engaged communities are essential to the creation of sustainable and high-quality spaces.

Theresa May has spoken of her desire to speak for those struggling to make their way in modern Britain. Housing is the most obvious and immediate area in which Britain needs to take urgent action. Local communities require the freedom to build housing that meets their needs. Similarly, Whitehall must relinquish control over our often shambolic public transport systems, where it can take longer to travel from Oxford to Cambridge by train than it does to get from London to Paris. 

Brexit has been met with dismay by many architects, but now seems inescapable. The profession has to engage with the debate about the form that Brexit will take. If some seismic shift in the UK is occurring, then it also opens up new possibilities. Ever since Thatcher, architects have been pushed further into the margins of public life, often reduced to stylists for developers and investment products. Most architects aspire to create spaces of real human value. We now need to influence a post-Brexit vision of Britain, where we are able to play a full role as enablers of both social and economic good.