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Former Conservative Cabinet minister John Gummer MP puts construction under the spotlight

ONCE upon a time it was a real feather in the cap of a builder when he was chosen to work on a new courthouse.

Until relatively recently, our courts were among the best buildings in England. From London's Law Courts, designed by the remarkable G E Street, to the humblest of magistrates' courts, we strove to enhance the majesty of the law by a fitting architectural setting.

Since the '60s, that has all changed and you'd be hard put to find a worthy building put up by the Lord Chancellor's Department. When I was Secretary of State, it was recognised this would be the last arm of government to take seriously my department's campaign for better design.

Now they've surpassed themselves in Chester by threatening to build a really mediocre building on the site of the Roman amphitheatre in one of the great cities of Europe. As a result we shall lose the last chance to excavate the Roman remains that have yet to been seen in modern times.

There is no doubt whose responsibility this is. It is the client - Her Majesty's Government. So it's hard luck on the construction company. It must be a real embarrassment to David Maclean Developments to have to operate in such a situation - a high-quality construction business, building to a sadly deficient design on an important site. They have made a good reputation for themselves in the North-West and North Wales and yet, through no fault of their own, they are likely to get the brickbats when it's the bureaucrats who are the villains of this piece. This is not a proposal which should ever have been mooted.

To make matters worse, the present Lord Chancellor, the immediate client, is a man of taste. Whatever may be the complaints about him, his refurbishment of his lodgings in the House of Lords was a welcome attempt to live up to the quality of Pugin's original design. How can he allow this scheme to continue? A second-rate building, despoiling a first-class archaeological site, in a city of world renown. The verdict must be 'guilty as charged'.