Duncan Sim is Policy and Projects Officer at ResPublica.
The Government’s welcome agenda to correct the over-centralisation of the UK’s political institutions reached its apogee with the introduction of the Cities Devolution Bill; but it must also be remembered that communities consist of more than the local authorities which represent them. Devolution, at its core, is a means of empowering citizens to influence their locality.
The automatic grant of planning permission for future brownfield development, for example, is a worrying harbinger of an approach which cuts local people out of the process of public decision-making, and therefore misses the value they can add. The Neighbourhood Planning powers introduced in the Localism Act 2011, by contrast, are perhaps the best-known resource open to direct involvement by individual citizens.
However, the vast majority of Plans continue to be found in more affluent rural or suburban areas, suggesting community engagement in local decision-making of this kind remains trapped among the wealthy. Moreover, while Neighbourhood Planning powers offer communities a valuable resource when it comes to setting a vision for their local area, they do not explicitly recognise the value, and facilitate the preservation and creation, of specific local instances of beauty in both the natural and built environment.
Beauty is a word which has largely fallen out of fashion in both political and public discourse. It is seen as abstract and elitist. Policy-makers and the public alike are wary of the supposedly frivolous nature of debates around its importance, afraid to give visual appeal the same importance as hard economics – in spite of much evidence that the two are closely intertwined.
Far from being abstruse, beauty is at heart a democratic concept. Attempts to define beauty in the same way as a mathematical concept are doomed to failure, and as such it must be discerned, identified and created from the bottom up. It is from this understanding, and from considerations of beauty’s full intrinsic and extrinsic value, that ResPublica’s proposal for a ‘Community Right to Beauty’ flows.
We envisage this Right being underpinned by measures to allow communities to call for the improvement of derelict or unsightly buildings and spaces, and where necessary take on the management of these assets; to exert direct influence in the choice of design and developer for local projects; and to protect, maintain and improve local cherished, beautiful buildings and green spaces. Our recommendations give communities the chance to genuinely shape and enhance their local area.
Some will doubtless argue that greater local control in planning decisions, particularly on the basis of such an eminently contestable and inflammatory concept as beauty, will lead only to further delays in new development and ossification of existing localities. Yet we have been careful to frame our proposed ‘right’ so that the practical measures which will realise it constitute a set of tools available to those communities who wish to improve their area, rather than negative veto powers.
It is especially important that new proposals actively promote beauty in our urban areas given the essentially defensive nature of the present measures designed to encourage beauty in the public realm. At present, the system cherry-picks the exceptional for preservation, most often in rural surroundings – for example National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – while towns and cities are left deprived of aesthetic appeal.
Despite its undeniable virtues, this approach has resulted in a deepening distributional imbalance, whereby access to beauty is concentrated into narrow areas of the country and your pay cheque acts as your passport to aesthetic inspiration. We should not allow income and geography to act as gatekeepers to anyone’s experience of beauty. If we recognise beauty as a good, then it becomes a matter of social justice that its experience should be available to all.
The current system fails to achieve this. Its reform offers an opportunity to create genuine civic engagement with localities – and thereby promote, rather than hinder, new development. For example, work by Create Streets has found that where the design of new housing is locally unpopular, this can decrease support for that development by up to 64 per cent – more than enough to tip the balance between community support and opposition. Statistics like this suggest that greater community involvement is in fact a catalyst, rather than a barrier, for new development.
We believe communities should be given the opportunity to step up and take responsibility for development in their area, and that civic debate can result in productive negotiation rather than a deadlocked clash of tastes. If this can be achieved, our proposals – including the designation of ‘Community Improvement Districts’ and ‘Areas of Outstanding Urban Beauty’, Citizens’ Juries to oversee problematic developments, and Capital Gains Tax relief for developers who allow for community wishes on the visual aspects of development – will enable communities to create surroundings they find visually attractive.
This will deliver not only instrumental benefits – in terms of local physical and mental health outcomes, local economic growth, and the quality of communities – but also serve to remedy the increasing disparity in access to beauty and the awareness of social division and injustice this creates. This, surely, is a great enough reward to warrant a grant of trust that local people will seize this opportunity to see their areas improve and flourish, rather than stagnate and decay.