The problem with appointing a body of "experts" is that their expertise is so often questionable. Cabe, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, was created by New Labour as a successor to the Fine Arts Commission allegedly run as a one-man show by Lord St John of Fawsley. It soon acquired a reputation for making dubious aesthetic pronouncements on new building projects, promoting the foolish and faddish at the expense of the tried and trusted.
Overall, Cabe often failed to apply the simple rule which it has since formulated about new buildings: that they be of better quality than those they replace. In consequence, many much-loved Victorian terraces all over the Midlands and the North are due to be demolished to make way for indifferent new housing.
But this week, at last, the developers' poodle has turned and barked. Cabe reported for the first time on one of the Government's "housing market renewal" (i.e. demolition and rebuilding) schemes, and found it badly wanting. "We think the project fails both as urban design and as architecture," say the experts of the site in Sandwell, previously pointed to by the Government as a showcase for "market renewal". The project, designed by Persimmon plc and paid for by John Prescott's amorphous Whitehall department, failed on eight out of 10 of Cabe's objectives for good design. In particular, it lacks sufficient communal space and fails to keep faith with the character of the area - errors sadly familiar from a generation ago.
The high crime rates endured by the residents of 1960s housing estates testify to the obvious truth that bad design blights lives. "Expertise" and "modernity", no matter how eye-catching on a drawing-board, are no substitute for good building. If Cabe has a reason for existing - which is not yet proved - it is surely to defend unfashionable and worthy styles of architecture against ephemeral and worthless fads. If this report signals a new determination to do so, we will all be grateful - particularly if the commission now turns its attention to the catastrophe pending in Victorian Liverpool.