Headlines: March 2nd, 2004

The importance of good design in public buildings is underlined in a new report from the Institute of Public Policy Research. “Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook”, says it can lead to savings in long-term running costs, promote productivity, and increase the satisfaction, happiness and even the health of the people who work for and use public services.The report is the culmination of ippr’s Designs on Democracy competition, which chose new designs for North Hertfordshire, Stockport and Bradford town halls. The institute ran public workshops with local people in all those council areas. Views expressed included suggestions that the existing buildings had an air of secrecy or looked like courts. One person said, “I don’t think you would find the public in here” and another, “As a teacher, I would never want to bring my children in here”.

The report says all councils can win quick success with open days, allowing the public behind closed doors or creating working models and 3-dimensional street plans of local authority areas, showing new or proposed developments. Other suggestions include the use of trees and plants that could be moved outside in summer and inside in winter, and improving lighting to transform the image of a town hall at night.

Ben Rogers, ippr Senior Research Fellow, said council chambers, with their formal decorations, heavy furniture, and raised mayoral platforms did not invite popular engagement and often resembled courts of law. “In Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford, Middlesbrough and elsewhere, 19th century edifices are still the most obviously identifiable civic buildings.” He said few civic centres had effective meeting rooms for the new cabinet and scrutiny committees or for the many other public meetings that councils hosted.

In the foreword to the report, Yvette Cooper, a junior minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, says shoddy, ill-conceived or run-down buildings lower the morale of everyone that has to use them and undermine confidence in public services.

“Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook”, is available from Central Books on 0845 4589910/ fax: 0845 4589912/ www.centralbooks.com