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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 December 2006, 10:04 GMT
Design body aims to build on work
Gareth Jones
BBC Wales Business Editor

Cardiff skyline - photo: Chris Henden
The skylines in Welsh cities are changing
Wales' towns and cities are changing. Agencies say finding an architect is difficult - they're too busy building.

But we're not talking just house extensions here.

A host of major new designs are transforming our city skylines and dozens of smaller schemes will have an impact on our towns.

Is anyone keeping an eye on all this?

We have local planning authorities of course, but three years ago the Welsh Assembly Government created another body - the Design Commission for Wales .

In the words of Environment Minister Carwyn Jones, the commission is "the nation's champion for the built environment", lifting standards of architecture, landscape and urban design, promoting skills, social inclusion and sustainable development.

The commission has just published a review into its first three years of operation and it shows what a tough job it's had.

Reading the review you realise that a huge amount of buildings are coming our way: Wales' tallest buildings are planned for Swansea; Cardiff and Newport; the country's highest structure will be in the north - Snowdon's new café; numerous towns are being 'regenerated'.

Design Commission for Wales logo
It is now time to become more vocal, to strengthen the critique of poorly designed and mediocre development
Design Council for Wales

Getting their designs right could massively improve the look of our urban areas, enhance people's quality of life and contribute to greener, sustainable development.

What are the chances?

The commission has looked at 127 schemes over three years and its honest self-assessment shows that its influence on them has been limited.

It's not for want of trying.

This is not an arrogant organisation: Its advice to the schemes' developers, architects and clients is civil and constructive.

But the commission is a non-statutory body, so its comments can be ignored. And they often are.

Its chairman, Professor Richard Parnaby, said: "We have definitely had our successes.

"Those designing Cardiff's new shopping centre listened to our suggestions.

"But other projects we commented upon, like the proposed redevelopment of Abergavenny town centre, actually got worse!'

Critics say the commission's approach is wrong.

Artist impression of the St David's 2 development in Cardiff
The commission has advised on new developments

"It's shunned publicity, lessening its impact," says Patrick Hannay, a professor of architecture at University of Wales Institute Cardiff (Uwic).

"It should single out just a few big schemes and make a public example of them by highlighting their shortcomings."

Its potential to add value is obvious from the occasional successes described in the review: Early lurid designs for the new David Evans store in Swansea were transformed by its advice into something more elegant and environmentally sustainable.

They have tried pushing developers into recognising that they have duties not just to their clients but to a wider community, like pedestrians and low income groups, and to the longer term.

And it does seem that a frustrated commission agrees change is needed.

The review concludes: "There is a strong feeling amongst commissioners that it is now time to become more vocal, to strengthen the critique of poorly designed and mediocre development and to draw attention to persistent failure to adhere to national sustainability policy".

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