Malcolm Fraser

Building industry and planners set to give Planning Bill evidence

Holyrood’s local government and communities committee will continue to examine the Planning (Scotland) Bill tomorrow as it hears evidence from organisations from the country’s builders and planners.

Tammy Swift-Adams, director of planning, Homes for Scotland, Jenny Hogan, deputy chief executive, Scottish Renewables, Gordon Nelson, director, Federation of Master Builders Scotland, Sarah Boyack, head of public affairs, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and Jonathan Fair, regional managing director – Scotland, McCarthy and Stone will all give evidence to the committee as the proposed Bill is put to the test.

MSPs will then hear from Kate Houghton, policy and practice officer, RTPI Scotland, Malcolm Fraser, consultant architect, Professor Cliff Hague, emeritus professor of planning and spatial development, Heriot-Watt University and Stuart Tait, manager, and Dorothy McDonald, assistant manager, Clydeplan.

Local government and communities committee convener, Bob Doris MSP, said: “The entire purpose of these proposed changes is to strengthen the planning system and boost its contribution to inclusive growth, housing and infrastructure in Scotland.

“The Bill also aims to empower people to have their say on their places more than ever before, so that communities can influence development plans in their local areas.

“Our Committee now wants to find out whether the Bill will deliver an improved planning system and if so, should any improvements and changes be made to the Bill so that Scotland can develop a world-class approach to planning its cities, towns and rural areas in the future.”

A link to the papers is available here and you can watch the sessions online tomorrow via

Leading architects accuse RIAS of secrecy and ‘insufficient financial accountability’

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

More than 150 of Scotland’s leading architects have launched an unprecedented attack on the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), accusing it of being financially inept and a “secretive and autocratic” organisation.

The group, calling itself A New Chapter, many of whom are RIAS members, revealed in an open letter their concerns at what they see as “a lack of effectiveness, poor governance and insufficient financial accountability in Scottish architecture’s professional body”.

Signed by leading figures including Malcolm Fraser, Charlie Hussey, Chris Platt, Helen Lucas, Jude Barber and Paul Stallan, the letter deplores the “general, self-satisfied torpor and bunkered, closed-up-ness that afflicts the RIAS, and demand that a culture of openness and inclusivity is now embraced”.

The letter reads: “We want an organisation to better champion the profession and provide more meaningful support in the many crises which have afflicted us for too long; from the institutionalised contempt for our professional skills represented by the ongoing PFI scandals and the procurement cesspool we have to wade through; to the housing crisis we should be engaged in averting, and to those of inclusivity, sustainability and wellbeing that we should be leading”.

The letter is the third sent to RIAS president Stewart Henderson in recent weeks.

It also asks the RIAS to disclose how much its senior staff are paid in “recent wage rises, bonus payments and other financial benefits” and to explain how the incorporation’s council exercises its responsibility to set staff pay.

The group has requested that the following is revealed:

  • A breakdown of pay received by the Incorporations’ most senior employees, including recent wage rises, bonus payments and other financial benefits;
  • How exactly Council exercises its responsibility to set staff remuneration as stated in the Annual Accounts;
  • A copy of the independent salaries benchmarking Review, with personal details removed as may be required by data protection law, but otherwise un-redacted.
  • A copy of the independent Probity Review, again with personal details removed as may be required by data protection law, but otherwise un-redacted.
  • A copy of the independent Governance Review into existing management practices, not just what new policies and procedures are being proposed.

It letter ends by saying: “Finally, and in general, we deplore the general self-satisfied torpor and bunkered closed-up-ness that afflicts the RIAS, and demand that a culture of openness and inclusivity is now embraced. We would like to see much of the old establishment give way to a more representative group, with a better balance of younger and female members, and a new commitment to our responsibilities to society to better face the challenges in front of us.”

RIAS President Stewart Henderson insisted that work was being carried out to improve the structure and management of the body.

He said: “As a member-led organisation, member interest and involvement in the issues facing the profession can only strengthen the Incorporation. We are already progressing a full review of both the governance and the future direction of the Incorporation.

“The Incorporation appreciates that the Trustees, who make up Council, must look forward to embrace a governance and operating system that brings the openness that is right for a member led organisation. The RIAS staff are here to respond to and support members’ priorities.

“The Incorporation is committed to seeking wider involvement from members in responding to and shaping corporate strategy. The recent chapter-led consultations will help to shape the next 5 year plan. Chapter involvement is central to feedback of information to Council. Considerable on-going work has already focussed on responding to those areas highlighted in the open letters.

“The Incorporation is clear that more could be done and with further support more can happen to inform and influence these future agendas. There has been no attempt to cover up investigations, however there are legal reasons why information has not yet been shared in full. The Governance Group appointed by Council have instructed investigations of a number of issues. These have included probity reviews, salary benchmarking and a review of governance policies. Where legally possible trustees can share details, to which they have been party.

“The Incorporation is happy that they share details with members. The review has identified a lack of structured governance and this needs to be addressed with improved management organisation and accountability measures put in place. The RIAS must look forwards to determine the aims and future of the organisation. The Incorporation recognises that diversity is one of those aims. Election of the president is as currently set out in our Charter. Once legal impediments are behind us, there will be an opportunity to harness the creative energy symbolic of our membership and respond appropriately.”

Architect Malcolm Fraser makes case for ‘repair and renew’ strategy for housing

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

Scotland could tackle its housing crisis with a serious effort to repair and renew existing urban infrastructure, especially in town centres, according to one of Scotland’s top architects.

Outlining his vision for housing in a new report, award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser discourages the idea that the housing crisis can be tackled through high-volume, low-quality new builds in the suburbs.

Fraser details a plan to reinvigorate run-down town centres through enhanced efforts to repair and renew Scotland’s 34,000 empty homes; lobby Westminster for the reduction of VAT on repairs; allow local authorities to compulsorily purchase vacant sites cheaply; and introduce a land value tax or derelict land tax to encourage development and reduce land speculation.

In the report called ‘Housekeeping Scotland: A Discussion Paper outlining a New Agenda for Housing’, published today by the Common Weal think-tank, Fraser argues that a major cause of the current housing crisis was the ideological pursuit of mortgage-backed and privately owned homes.

He said: “The United Kingdom’s housing policies have been ideologically-driven, and have led to the current crisis of strangled investment, under-provision and a general flow of power and money from civic society to the wealthy.”

Fraser, who also chaired and authored the Scottish Government’s 2013 Town Centre Review, added: “UK housing has suffered greatly from its politicians’ fixation with a single form of home and tenure, the mortgage-backed and privately-owned home.  But it is clear that, even if it was desirable to only have this orthodox model (which it is not), not everyone is going to get a mortgage;  and it is also clear that the ideological pursuit of this helped poison, and nearly bring down, the world economy, as well as being a key contributor to our current housing crisis.

“While Scotland has shown some appetite for broadening our housing horizons it needs to set out a clear agenda for achieving a diverse and sustainable market, that suits all incomes and interests while providing the shelter that is a fundamental right for all.”

A range of measures are advocated in order to achieve this, including:

  • Enhanced efforts to repair and renew Scotland’s 34,000 empty homes;
  • Lobby Westminster for reduction of VAT on repairs;
  • Allow local authorities to compulsory purchase order vacant sites cheaply
  • Introduce a land value tax or derelict land tax to encourage development and reduce land speculation;
  • A new financing model for the building of public rental housing;
  • Increased value put on high-quality construction apprenticeships;
  • The building of homes based on using the best of Scotland’s natural resources and homes that are desirable to live in and built to last
  • A “Central Housing Unit” to co-ordinate and provide leadership to disparate government housing initiatives.

Fraser, commenting on the paper, stated: “We all know we need to provide more homes, but to do this we need to think more creatively about where they might come from. Our proposal suggests more care for our existing stock, including more of Scotland’s 34,000 long-term empty homes repaired, more new homes in the hearts of our existing communities supporting their schools and services, and a reinvigorated and re-financed public rental sector (good new council housing, please!) alongside imaginative new private models. Our model also looks at using tax more creatively, how we should concentrate on the simple qualities that build good communities and how to entice young people into the building trades.”

Robin McAlpine, Common Weal director, said of the report: “Malcolm Fraser is a visionary architect and a respected thinker on how we should build and indeed how we should live together.

“Housing very often comes up as one of people’s top priorities when they’re asked about what government should be doing, but too often the agenda is set by so-called volume housebuilders who simply want permission for more and more low quality new build.

“What is so valuable about this report is that it asks what a proper, integrated vision for housing and urban development in Scotland would look like if the policy was designed for people who live in houses rather than people who make profits out of building them.

“Any report which concludes that designing the places our children play so they are bathed with sunlight is more important than a quick buck is a report that people should read.”

Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, welcomed the report, stating. “The last 10 years has seen Scotland position itself very differently from Westminster in that it has social justice at the heart of all policy.

“This report by Malcolm Fraser highlights how creating Place and Communities using strategic housing investment in town centres delivers on social justice, economic growth, community and importantly on sustainability and the environment.

“Scotland is a nation of towns with two medium sized cities so it is what we do in towns that will ultimately determine our social and economic success. Our towns are facing complex challenges and I believe that this new thinking, alongside Scottish Government policy such as Town Centre First, can be a driver to deliver a relatively simple but effective solution.

“Take Kilmarnock, last year it was awarded Scotland’s Most Improved Town – five former town centre retail sites were developed for almost 200 new council homes and the Council HQ moved almost 900 staff into a former Whisky Bond in the town centre. The resulting footfall lifted the fortunes of the town and these new communities were given fresh hope.”

Fraser will launch the report today at IdeaSpace during the SNP conference fringe festival in Glasgow.

Malcolm Fraser criticises current procurement model as ‘PPP lite’

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

Architect Malcolm Fraser has called for the procurement of school buildings to be returned to Scotland’s councils amid growing criticism of funding deals following the Edinburgh schools crisis.

The City of Edinburgh Council ordered the closure of 17 schools on Friday after the private consortium behind the construction and maintenance of the schools, the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), admitted that it cannot guarantee the safety the buildings.

Structural faults have been detected in some of the buildings, which were all built under the first round of public-private partnerships (PPP).

Set up to replace the private finance initiative (PFI), the public-private partnership (PPP) model was then scrapped by the SNP government in 2008 and replaced with the non-profit distributing (NPD) Scottish Futures Trust (SFT), an independent company.

Thousands of pupils in Edinburgh are still unable to return to classrooms as contractors continue to carry out safety checks on schools.

Now leading architect Malcolm Fraser joined calls for councils to be given direct control of commissioning school building projects, branding the current funding setup as “PPP lite”.

Mr Fraser, who quit as deputy chairman of Scotland’s design watchdog in 2007 in protest over poor quality PFI schools, said he remained concerned with the current financing model.

He told The Scotsman: “I’m not happy with it. In many respects it’s just PPP lite and I think the Scottish Government’s Hub contracts for the provision of public buildings are really concerning, too.

“They are dividing the country up into mega regions and awarding monopolies to exactly the same big contractors which will probably end up being partly owned offshore.

“The correct way to do things is for local authorities to be empowered to commission good buildings and responsible for their delivery, instead of these bizarre financial deals.”

Mr Fraser said there had been “shoddiness” in the financial methods used to procure PPP schools, as well as in the level of design.

He added: “The whole industry, everyone realised these buildings were shoddy and they were shoddy in every sort of way – in terms of quality of the environment made for the children and financially they were unbelievably expensive and they were purely an ideological route, they were not good for the public purse, they were not good for education and we are seeing what has come out of that now.

“There was no care or concern going into the buildings themselves. Often good Victorian or even 1960s schools, like Craigmount was, were being replaced by inferior contemporary buildings and there was this vast financial and ideological pressure on councils to show they cared about children by spending money. And the government was very keen these complex financial models be used that enriched lawyers and bankers but impoverished the public built environment.”

Mr Fraser said government and local authorities could borrow cheaply and invest in new schools.

He said: “Instead the government borrowed on the never never, using these private deals and believed they were off balance sheet and they therefore didn’t need to show them in the balance of payments. Europe has subsequently ruled that’s not the case. So there was a narrow justification at the time that they didn’t need to show them in public borrowing, but that has since been proved false.

“All of this proves that the best thing the public sector can do is borrow, invest and control and not pass such important matters over to the private sector.”

And he criticised the way PFI operated, adding: “Things can go wrong on site under any method, but it is particular that this sort of method is one of self regulation. Contractors are trusted to police themselves, so in cases like this there is no independent engineer, no independent architect that are tasked to stand outside the process, inspect the work and ensure these sort of things don’t happen.”

Mr Fraser also spoke about the difficulty of carrying out checks on buildings, saying: “When everything is covered up it’s very hard to tell where these other problems might lie. You almost need to take a school to bits to find out that these issues are there. You don’t really understand there is a problem until something catastrophic goes wrong, as it has at Oxgangs which has led to all these other inspections.”

And he agreed other buildings could also have problems, adding: “Schools, hospitals, police stations – all sorts of public buildings came through this. There is a possibility in all sorts of directions.

“We should not necessarily say this means all PPP buildings are going to have problems. We can hope it is isolated to this particular contractor and these particular schools. But for me it is emblematic of the bigger issues when we cede responsibility to the private sector to provide vital public infrastructure.”

Fraser’s criticism comes after fellow architect Professor Alan Dunlop said he was worried that what had happened in Edinburgh is PPP “chickens coming home to roost” and Neil Baxter, secretary of RIAS, call for a return to traditional methods of procurement for major public buildings.

Barry White, chief executive of the SFT, said: “NPD is very different from PFI – it has seen improved procurement and better design through the use of reference designs worked up by the public sector.”

Blog: Architect Malcolm Fraser on the end of his practice

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

Architect Malcolm Fraser reflects on the experience of having to close his practice despite producing buildings feted by colleagues and politicians.

My name is Malcolm Fraser and I’m a recovering businessman.  I’m an architect and ran a successful practice for 22 years that was lauded with awards and made buildings that people loved and were economic successes.  We had good clients that wanted us and what we did was beautiful and important, but it was not profitable and the business creased trading in August, going into voluntary liquidation.

There is, then, the bleakest of humour in launching my career as a Rattle columnist in response to my editor’s request to write about “what Scotland needs to do to nurture and sustain talent”.  We are familiar with such advice from the successful businessman; but here’s some from a different place.

First, I should be clear that no blame accrues to my former clients.  We had beautiful work on our computers, for clients who appreciated us, and it breaks my heart to have lost those relationships, as well as my work colleagues.  But all our work was tricky, challenging and high-profile, of the sort that some might see as “loss-leaders”, so we had to compete on fee levels with that perception.  And, despite strenuous efforts, we never managed to land the sort of larger projects whose fees would underpin our smaller, high-profile ones.

Winning those challenging, high-profile and mid-sized public projects was also a terrifying, byzantine process.  Huge efforts were poured into extraordinarily-complex official “procurement” processes, that had us write endless screeds about technical and procedural irrelevancies while never approaching the simple question of “are we any good at making good buildings?”

So, while our record on such simplicities was exemplary – all our significant projects still flourish and we never, in our 22 years, made an insurance claim – our business model was very marginal: challenging, mid-sized, procurement-heavy projects in a very competitive fee climate.

My direct competitors feel the same pressures and it is a huge problem that the innovative, craft-based end of an industry that is so critical to the nation’s health, wealth and happiness, is so insecure.  Further, the box-tick nature of these procurement processes militates against the emergence of new practices, without long lists of projects they have already completed, so we are in the unhappy, infertile position of having produced no major new architectural practices this century.

It’s easy to blame this on architecture’s procurement processes but I’d like to look behind them, to understand a wider malaise that affects all our endeavours, not just our architectural ones.  The core problem is a British one, that, in the second half of the last century, we lost the joy in making things and then, from the late 1970s, turned decisively away from a culture of making and substituted a service one. The primary business of modern Britain is the slew of financing and financial instruments, deals and legal structures, asset-trading and bundling, marketing and spin-doctoring that underpins our neo-liberal economy;  and that if we might label that Thatcherite, then what New Labour added to it was a maze of consultation and micro-regulation (for after deregulating the big, important things, it’s a simple displacement-activity to over-regulate the small).

In the building industry, The Private Finance Initiative that the Conservatives invented and New Labour went gaga for, is a prime exemplar.  Schools, Hospitals and other buildings supplied through vast, complex and extremely expensive private finance whose only virtue was ideological awe for the wisdom of bankers over the public interest, and where the simplicities of delivering healthy buildings full of light, air and connectivity appear nowhere and are, at best, incidental to the process.

We sometimes fondly imagine that we do things differently in Scotland, and the Government has put in place a non-profit version of Private Finance, which works through the Scottish Futures Trust and awarding large public “Hub” contracts, on locked-in monopolistic deals, to large (and usually English-headquartered) contractors.  Such upscaling bypasses local firms and, again, substitutes process for craft – with architects’ services being described as a “supply chain component” where, presumably, the cheapest and most basic service, rather than the most caring and beautiful, is required, producing the most basic school or hospital.

It seems to me that most of what has gone awry in our new Scotland has been through “upscaling”:  our single police force, for instance, and the closing-down of local courts with justice withdrawn to the cities.  The initiatives that hold the most promise are those that spread-out ownership and decision-making, such as through the Community Empowerment Bill, The Land Reform Group and new initiatives in Housing.

A national focus on “downscaling” – on subsidiarity, as devolving responsibility and decision-making down to its most local level – would probably also start with a revived local democracy.  Scotland has the most disconnection between an ordinary voter and their political representatives of any European democracy, and badly needs reinvigorated community or parish councils to care for us locally – as well as larger Local Authorities, with cities reconnected to their hinterlands under areas similar to the Health Board ones.

So my proposal for creating a climate for the nurturing and retention of talent in Scotland is big and ambitious, involving critical national renewal:  a culture that recovers joy in the craft of making things, and rewards the skills that requires; and that avoids creating big, dumb structures when, instead, it should be devolving down power and decision making, trusting its people and communities.

This article first appeared in the Rattle.