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Artillery Row

All must have beauty

There is finally a coherent plan to improve urban development in Britain – its implementation would be transformative.

When Sir Roger Scruton was appointed to chair the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC), developers, architects and planning officers braced themselves for a full-frontal excoriation. Short of appointing HRH the Prince of Wales to design a space lab, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government could scarcely have found a candidate less sympathetic to the rattle and hum of modern design.

The building sector’s line of defence could be predicted: Professor Scruton’s proposals would be impractical and would be the triumph of a Ye Olde England “pastiche” (to use the modernists’ default insult). In any case, such traditionalism would be too expensive to achieve, thereby worsening Britain’s housing shortage.

Yet, the publication of the BBBBC’s report, Living with Beauty, has been greeted with far more bouquets than brickbats. It has received a fair hearing from the architectural press. Alan Jones, the President of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has pinpointed for praise its attacks on public sector procurement practices and permitted development rights. Even the National Federation of Builders has been broadly welcoming.

In dying just before the Commission report’s publication, Sir Roger did not live to relish this unexpected ovation. The question for the rest of us concerns how he – and his latter-stages co-chair, Nicholas Boys Smith – pulled off such critical praise from audiences that were expected to be hostile?

It is not that Scruton and Boys Smith “bottled it.” On the contrary, Living with Beauty bristles with trenchant criticisms. The role of the National Infrastructure Commission, described as “the critical entity driving the creation of large-scale settlements,” gets a mauling for its perceived indifference to place-making and attractiveness. Homes England’s considerable procurement powers also come under scrutiny, with proposals to bring its land sale process “into line with the metrics of quality.”

Nor does Living with Beauty lack ambition, even if some of its ideas, like planting two million trees and encouraging a fruit tree for every new house, will ultimately be subjected to pruning. In the future, not every street will be an Orchard Road.

What the report has achieved is the difficult task of making effectual proposals without being tightly prescriptive. By avoiding defining beauty or advocating a particular look, it has wisely sidestepped a confrontational style war. Rather, the report declares that “the issue is not about style – any style can prove acceptable if it generates a real settlement.” Instead, it outlines a pathway to beauty by promoting place-making through forms of development that respect the historic, natural and topographical features of their location.

In supporting “the local idiom,” it cites with approval the submission of the Heritage Alliance that “the core of any place value is in the appreciation of the communities living there, in their perception of what constitutes the place’s uniqueness, character, heritage and meaningfulness.” By encouraging a greater sense of coherent aesthetic identity locally, the promotion of local characteristics should mitigate against the dominance of a single style nationwide. Given the tendency of Britain’s volume house-builders to pepper the country with Brookside-like estates of unifying vacuity, this has to be an improvement.

Of course a commission can praise good practice to the heavens but achieve nothing without state enforcement. The current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) already recommends creating attractive places but does not seem able to bring this about. Why should the handiwork of Scruton, Boys Smith and their expert witnesses be any different?

Living with Beauty genuinely stands a good chance of shaping Britain’s built environment. Given the mediocrity of so much that has been built this century, it certainly has the data and evidence to make its case. It also helps that few, if any, of its recommendations require primary legislation. How many of the proposals will be taken forward will become clearer with the release of the ministry’s white paper which is expected later this year. At the very least, the engaged tone of the Housing Minister, Robert Jerrick, suggests that this is not another report that will be simply received with gratitude and then filed in the bin.

this is not another report that will be simply received with gratitude and then filed in the bin.

Some, of its recommendations will need the Treasury’s blessing. For instance, the report calls for an end to the incongruity whereby new construction is zero-rated for VAT but the repair, maintenance and adaptation of existing buildings is slapped with a 20 percent VAT charge. This anomaly has acted as an invitation to build on greenfield sites whilst brownfield sites are left to rot. Incoming Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would do well to adopt this incentive to recycle in next month’s Budget.

Sweeping in its ambition, Living with Beauty seeks to transform the planning system. Currently, this system is remarkably non-prescriptive. There is an absence of regulation determining how a proposed development should look and feel. There is no coherent local or national rule book to consult. Instead (unless a headline project is thereafter “called in” for Whitehall adjudication), it is left to local planning departments to consult and then pass judgement.

In principle, this ought to be a good thing. It empowers local officials to judiciously assess the merits of proposals on their doorstep.

In practice, it is beset with fundamental problems. The aesthetics are determined by whatever the developer and its architect propose and in balancing competing pressures (over which aesthetic perfection struggles to be the determinant), planning officials make their recommendation conscious that blocking one scheme is no guarantor that there are better alternatives circling in a holding pattern.

This creates a headache for the developers too. Judgement day typically comes at the end of a protracted process. There is considerable cost involved in a lengthy procedure with an uncertain outcome that is dependent upon the vagaries of the planning office.

It is this combination of time and risk that helps to make development in the UK more expensive than in comparative countries. This cost has aesthetic as well as financial consequences, since who are the developers with the deep pockets and ability to spread the risk and take a hit if the scheme is rejected? Overwhelmingly, they are the big volume house-builders, with their mass market indifference to local idiom.

It is not like this elsewhere. Where half of new homes built in Europe are custom-built, self-built, or the work of small local practices, the proportion in Britain is only one in ten. The resulting lack of competition among Britain’s housebuilders not only results in “could-be-anywhere” production-line estates, it also pushes up costs, a contributory factor in why the ratio of house prices to average income has doubled since 1988.

the ratio of house prices to average income has doubled since 1988.

Living with Beauty offers a package of proposals to correct this market (and aesthetic) failure. “Our aim” it states “is not to abolish the network of planning constraints, but to provide a fast track for beauty that will keep all the precious safeguards in place.”

It does so not only by prioritising and institutionalising place-making in local government but by proposing the creation of local plans that establish comprehensible rules for development in each area.

In this way, setting the parameters of acceptable building for developers to digest at the outset should ensure that they can submit their proposals with far greater confidence that approval will result – so long as they have been true to the local plan. The risk and time involved in the process is therefore cut. In consequence, there will be a lowering of the barriers to entry for the smaller, more local, practices. Variety and competition will thrive.

As the report summarises it, “the local plan must put beauty and placemaking at the very front of any proposed development process, from the first allocation of land and prior to any planning application. The local plan examination process should allow a choice between competing proposals. At present objectors can only appear to criticise a plan and cannot promote a better one.”

Taken together with the report’s championing of shorter, more visual plans (now relatively easy thanks to advances in computer graphics) the consequence should be to enhance engagement with local communities who have otherwise been deterred by weighty documents of jargon.

Living with Beauty may prove to be an era-defining manifesto.

“For too long now” states the report, “we have been turning our country into an unsightly nowhere, so forcing up the price of beauty and confining it to those enclaves where only the wealthy few can afford to live.”

Living with Beauty may prove to be an era-defining manifesto. In making development more agreeable, it could reduce NIMBY objections to the extra housing the country needs, tackling one of the great social and generational divides facing Britain. With so much professional opinion either supportive or open to persuasion, this is the moment to act if the Government means to make good on its rhetoric.

In bringing beauty to the many, not just the few, it would also be a fitting memorial to the life of Sir Roger Scruton.

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