Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets

Assuming you don’t spend spare moments pleasure-reading your way through Planning Inspectorate letters you might have missed this letter which emerged from the nether regions of DCLG last week. Weighing in at a cool 396 paragraphs over 83 pages of closely argued text it is not, it is true, a relaxing read (though it might help cure insomnia). But, buried away in its multiplex arguments, is yet more evidence of the profound and systemic ‘design disconnect’ which divides most design and development professionals from the general public and which the current conceptually-flawed British planning system not only fails to manage, but actively exacerbates and exaggerates.

The letter, all 396 paragraphs of it, is about the so-called Swiss Cottage Tower. Residents hated it. Camden Council was persuaded to reject it. The Secretary of State has now approved it on appeal to the planning inspectorate.

Multiple points could be made: about ‘poor doors’ for affordable housing, about the way in which a medium rise perimeter block could provide as much or very very nearly as much housing and at cheaper cost; about towers’ low energy efficiency and high long term running costs. But the point I would like to exhume from the dense mire of inspectoratese is simply this. Most residents, left wing or right wing, rich or poor, young or old just didn’t like the thing.

Lumpen. Ugly. Too big. Too shiny. Doesn’t fit in. “A monstrous proposal, which is grotesquely out of scale with its surroundings.” These seem to have been the standard views. A medium-rise mansion block round the site could have met housing needs, most felt, more attractively, more sustainably, and at a cheaper build cost – this would have permitted more social housing which is the (Labour) council’s local policy. That’s why the councillors opposed it. That’s why local (Labour) Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq opposed it. That’s why Zac Goldsmith could write to the inspectorate: “This proposal is for a building that is oversized, completely out of keeping, and visually hideous. It would be astonishing if the community hadn’t reacted in the way that it has.”

That is why there were over 3,000 local objections but only four local supporters, 940 letters of opposition and only one of support.

100-avenue-roadPeople hated the thing. Locally elected representatives respected that and argued for a different more popular built form which achieved the same housing targets (which is perfectly possible). But at every stage, design and planning experts did not just support the building – they went out of their way to praise its design and aesthetics.

Camden officials praised it design. GLA officials praised its design. The Design Council praised its design. The Planning Inspector praised its design. In the end, I fear, the Secretary of State praised its design: “the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector … the GLA and the Design Council, that it would be a well designed, attractive building that sits well within its town centre context.”

It is crucial to keep in mind that this not a debate about housing versus no housing but about the nature, form and popularity of that housing.

In this instance, local policy and officials running the development control processes could have argued for a different, more popular form of medium rise high-density housing. They didn’t. They consistently and consciously typologically and aesthetically preferred a built form and specific building that most neighbours hate. And they said so.

It is far from an isolated example.

In 1987 a young psychologist was conducting an experiment into how repeated exposure to an image changed perceptions of it. A group of volunteer students were shown photographs of unfamiliar people and buildings. They were asked to rate them in terms of attractiveness.

Some of the volunteers were architects and some were not. And as the experiment was ongoing, a fascinating finding became clear. Whilst everyone had similar views on which people were attractive, the architecture and non architecture students had diametrically opposed views on what was or was not an attractive building. Correlations ‘were low or non-significant’. The architecture students’ favourite building was everyone else’s least favourite and vice versa. The disconnect also got worse with experience. The longer architecture students had been studying, the more they disagreed with the general public on what is an attractive building.

July 2015 planning inspector letters for and againstThe young psychologist was David Halpern and he is now a highly influential man. He runs the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights team (often called the ‘Nudge Unit’). Two decades on, he is very clear that ‘architecture and planning does not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that … sciences would understand. There are very few studies that ever go back to look at whether one type of dwelling or another, or one type of office or another, has a systematic impact on how people behave, or feel, or interact with one another.’

If he is right then the process of a professionally-derived borough plan, of planning consent and of expert design review is the very worst way imaginable to build our towns and cities. The very act which confers value on a site (the granting of planning permission) is a process whose key players are, empirically, the very worst judges available of what people want or like in the built environment. Nor can ‘the market’ effectively intervene. Developers get more value from ‘getting permission’ than from any other stage in the process. They are powerfully incentivised to need and want professional approval above market approval.

But is David Halpern still right? A much more recent Canadian academic study is not reassuring. It found not just that architects disagreed with the public on what was an attractive building but that they couldn’t predict what the public would like. A glance at the criteria of architectural prizes is just as troubling. Few, if any, place value on evidence of popularity or provable correlations with wellbeing. Certainly RIBA’s prizes specifically demand evidence on sustainability but not on what members of the wider public think. Similarly, in a 2004 study into attitudes to housing conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, nearly 60 per cent of the public said they disliked flats. Only a little over 20 per cent of ‘experts’ shared that view.

To investigate this further Create Streets recently conducted an informal poll. We asked respondents ‘which of these would you most want to see built on an urban street very near to where you or a close friend live?’ and presented four options whose order was randomised. We also asked their profession. 37 per cent of respondents worked as architects, planners or in creative arts. We were not surprised to find that among our overall respondents place trumped time. 87 per cent of our respondents preferred the two options which most clearly referenced historic housing forms and which had a very strong sense of place. This was nearly seven times more than the 13 per cent who preferred the two more original forms which prioritised a sense of time over a sense of place.

We also found that the sharp and important distinction between what non-design specialists and design specialists would like to see built is still there. 25 per cent of supporters of the more popular two options worked in planning, architecture or creative arts. 46 per cent of supporters of the less popular two options worked in planning, architecture or creative arts. People are from Mars. Professionals are still from Venus.

The melancholy implication of this is that architectural awards are a good indicator of popularity – but only if you invert them. We are aware of nine architectural or planning prizes awarded to the two least popular two options. We are not aware of any architectural or planning awards garnered by the most popular option.

These prejudices of too many in the design and planning establishment are not just idle personal preferences. They palpably influence what actually happens. And not just in Swiss Cottage. In a 2014 design meeting for a major London site, the ‘traditional’ built form of conventional developments was openly ridiculed and dismissed as unworthy of discussion even though it is what the public most like.

Similarly, in a June 2015 meeting of very senior officials and architects at which Create Streets was present the Director of Housing and Regeneration at an important London borough spoke (without apparent irony) of the ‘horrid Edwardian streets that most of us live in’ and complained of ‘dreary terraces.’ When a senior and respected decision-maker does not just disagree with the vast majority of the public but is actually contemptuous of their views it must be time to ask if the whole public procurement and planning prioritisation process needs dramatic rebuilding from the bottom up.

What is needed is a Direct Planning Revolution which will empower local residents more productively and constructively to influence the style, nature and typology of what we build. The Permission in Principle clause of the Housing and Planning Bill presents one opportunity to achieve this. And our London manifesto will set out in more detail how people’s preferences could trump designer group think.

A Direct Planning revolution is needed to bring the system back under democratic control. It is time to stop asking ‘how do we build more homes?’ and to start asking ‘how do we make new homes more popular?’ Only that way can we create the streets, homes and walkable neighbourhoods in which most of us actually want to live, work and play.

4 comments for: Nicholas Boys Smith: Why does it matter what people think?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.