Against ‘Living with Beauty’
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has published its final report, with the vacuous title ‘Living with Beauty’. Introduced with a slew of images, misleadingly including the seductive 18th-century Piece Hall in Halifax, the nearest to an Italian market square to be found in ‘North England’, the report proposes a ‘new development and planning framework, which will: ask for beauty, refuse ugliness, promote stewardship’.
The commissioners must have had a good time, visiting a handful of new developments (most already widely publicised, and many driven by the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’s development arm), talking to a range of polite professionals, and holding many meetings over an 18-month period. The commission’s first chair was the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who was succeeded by Nicholas Boys Smith, a roving ideologue of conservative design, the founder of Create Streets, a fellow of the University of Buckingham and a stalwart of the Legatum Institute.
The report includes sensible nuggets, such as the suggestion that the government level out VAT, which is currently higher for renovations and repairs than it is for new builds; that it row back on the deregulation of regulation (yet another stab at the foolishly liberalised National Planning Policy Framework); that design education improve; and that a higher ranking (and more durable) politician take overall responsibility for planning. John Prescott and Ed Vaizey both did the job well, even if neither of them was designated ‘chief placemaker’, a position the BBBBC report proposes every council should have.
The minister who commissioned the report, James Brokenshire, and his successor, Robert Jenrick, inhabit a world of ‘placemaking’ and ‘placemakers’. The semiotics are tedious, reminiscent of the Teletubbies, and we have been here before. The BBBBC report follows ‘Our Future in Place’, published in 2014, commissioned by Vaizey from the architect-planner Terry Farrell. Four years later, the Town and Country Planning Association turned to Nick Raynsford (another politician with long experience in the field), who produced a sharp and apposite report on the planning shambles that had led to permitted development, which allowed certain building works to go ahead without planning permission and resulted in egg-box offices being converted overnight into accommodation little more refined than a coronavirus isolation hospital.
The BBBBC report’s platitudes offer no solution to the UK’s housing crisis. What does it mean to ‘ask for beauty’? The report says that ‘schemes should be turned down for being too ugly.’ But who will be the judge of that? Any volume housebuilder’s sales office will tell you that the house people want to buy is like the one they just saw, ideally the one with the best view and the one they can afford. The market favours the traditional: pitched roof over flat roof, sash window over wrap-round glazing, a tiny porch instead of a doorstep, even – if the budget allows – a chimney in which to lodge a flue pipe. Above all, keep one house away from the next, even if the gap is little wider than an Amazon parcel.
Scrolling through the pdf on a train from Fenchurch Street to Southend, I looked up at Basildon. A poster prominently displayed at the station invites the old New Town residents to read their Draft Local Plan and ‘have your say’ at the local library or online. I wish Scruton, Boys Smith and their colleagues had more to offer them than their own prejudices and a time-consuming exercise in nailing jelly to the floor.