Where now for design at LDA?

The root-and-branch review of the LDA and cuts to staff numbers couldspell change for its design set-up, says Emily Pacey

As the axe swings at the London Development Agency, could the capital’s design industry be about to lose a useful friend?

Last week the LDA, which funds the London Design Festival and the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme in the capital, announced that it is to lose a quarter of its staff and endure a process of ‘refocusing’ on ‘long-term growth for London and on providing skills and jobs’.

A raft of sweeping changes at the LDA fulfils several agendas: it mops up a £112m funding cut from central Government, courts the approval of big business – and marks the agency as the territory of London’s new Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Initiating root-and-branch reforms at the LDA represents Johnson’s first big move since taking office in May. Some say he is being uncharacteristically muscular, parachuting interim chief executive Peter Rogers in to refocus the agency and publishing an investigation into the LDA that has accused it of overspending and investing haphazardly in projects.

While this does not alone spell disaster for design, many are concerned that Johnson has failed to grasp the design baton from Ken Livingstone. The former mayor is widely regarded as a latecomer to design who grew to appreciate its importance to London’s economy, proving his conviction when he opened last year’s London Design Festival. There are rumblings that design could suffer in the job cuts at the LDA. While the agency claims that it cannot reveal more detail about staffing cuts until September, a source close to the LDA suggests that its creative industries team – which funds the London Design Festival – could be for the chop.

The innovation design team, led by Max Broadhurst and Richelle Harun, and recently renamed to include design, could be retained, according to the source. This department looks after the £3.5m funding for the Design Council’s flagship Designing Demand initiative, which rolled out in London in March and aims to promote design to business leaders.

As yet there are scant details about how the LDA’s changes will affect funding, though Rogers told the Financial Times last week that it will not ‘spread itself so thin’, which the LDA has confirmed to Design Week.

While it is broadly expected that the London Design Festival, and publicly acknowledged that the Designing Demand programme, are guaranteed funding for the next three years, some believe that it could be the end of the line for investment in smaller design initiatives.

‘The anxiety is that there will be a scorched-earth approach to the LDA’s funding and projects and that there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water,’ says Dynamo London organiser and New Media Knowledge editor Ian Delaney. New Media Knowledge received less than £100 000 in funding from the LDA last year to set up Dynamo London with Applied Information Group. The website showcases digital design work in the capital.

While smaller design organisations admit that they have concerns about the changes happening at the LDA, the Design Council is publicly welcoming them, its spokeswoman claiming that the reforms are ‘bringing its agenda in line with our own’.

‘The agency was found to be wasting money, so there is every indication that they are refocusing the LDA to what it was originally supposed to be,’ she says.

But there are indications that bigger design projects could also suffer under the regime change. Some suspect that the International Design Exchange, IDX, could be about to bite the dust.The creation of this national centre for design was recommended in the Cox Review of 2005. The following year, the LDA funded two studies into the project’s viability, following which it failed to earmark any funding to take the plans forward. With its future insecure under the last mayoral administration, the shake-up of the LDA looks likely to have sealed the fate of the IDX.

A spokesman for the LDA strongly denied that any changes to the structure of the teams or the future of the IDX were afoot. ‘Proposals for the future shape of the LDA are due to be made next month and then consulted upon,’ he says.

With hindsight, it was almost inevitable that the apocalyptic conclusion to Livingstone’s policy of backing small, start-up projects would seal the fate for that particular brand of funding. Now, however, there is a big question mark over future support for London creative projects, ranging from the very small to the very large.

Design for London

• The London Development Agency is currently recruiting for a permanent chief executive to replace Peter Rogers
• Interim chief executive Rogers is axing 173 of the LDA’s 649 existing staff
• The LDA’s budget for 2008/2009 is £528.11m
• In 2007/2008 the budget was £640m – a figure the LDA says has been widely misreported as £740m
• The LDA has spent about £3bn since its formation in 2000
• The LDA has invested £3.5m in the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, £200 000 in the London Design Festival and under £100 000 in Dynamo London
• So far the agenda for change at the LDA has seen built environment organisation Design for London absorbed into the agency’s land and infrastructure directorate
• There are four ongoing police investigations into organisations that have received LDA funds, including Brixton Base and Diversity International (DW 30 January 2008)

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