In a speech last week to the National House Building Council, Sajid Javid, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, spoke about the importance of design when it comes to getting new homes built.
He acknowledged that concerns about what new buildings look like are legitimate:
“One thing that singles out architecture from other artistic endeavours is that it’s unavoidable.
If you don’t like a piece of music, you can just turn off your radio.
If you don’t like a particular painting or sculpture, you don’t have to visit the gallery in which it’s displayed.
But if the field across the road from your home is turned into 500 houses?
Well, like it or not, you’re going to have to look at them every morning when you open the curtains.
They’re not going anywhere.
That’s why the appearance of new homes, the aesthetic element, is not just important to students of design.”
It follows that there will be resistance if something ugly is proposed:
“One of the reasons people move to communities, particularly in rural areas, is because they like the way they look.
Their unique character.
And one of the single best ways to guarantee that a community will rise up against plans for any kind of development is to try and impose row upon row of identikit red-roofed boxes.
Off-the-peg homes with no sense of setting.”
Estates that, when you stand in the middle of them, could be anywhere from Cornwall to Cumbria.
He then added:
“To put it bluntly, ugly homes don’t get planning permission.
And nor should they.
Yes, we want to build more homes more quickly.
But that doesn’t have to mean ignoring the aesthetic or rejecting the local vernacular.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
If you want people to quickly accept new homes in their area, they have to be homes that local people don’t mind looking at.
They have to be homes that people want to live in, and homes that people want to live next door to.
I’m not going to stand here and tell you what good architecture looks like.
That’s not my job.
I’m not saying that every development should mirror Poundbury.
Nor am I saying that every new home should be fit for inclusion in the next series of Grand Designs.
Even Kevin McCloud would struggle to go round 300,000 sites each year!
All I’m saying is that engaging with the local community and giving them a greater influence over design will reap rewards for everyone, and it can work wonders in turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs!”
These are the right sentiments but to a large extent Javid is complaining to the wrong audience. The problem is that ugly homes do get planning permission. Often it is the case that only ugly homes can get planning permission – because the planning officers insist on modernism in the design brief they offer.
Poundbury is a beautiful and popular new town, but to say other developments don’t need to “mirror” it is something of a straw man argument. The Prince’s Foundation is also responsible for Nansledan, an extension to Newquay. It is also attractive and traditional. But Poundbury and Nansledan do not look the same.
So far as “engaging with the local community” and giving them “a greater influence” over design – again this is something that councils should take the lead on. Following a suggestion from Create Streets I asked our planning team at Hammersmith and Fulham Council:
“Please advise what actual numerical evidence we have (if any) on what types of built form, material, typology and style local people prefer. If we don’t have any such evidence what plans do we have to undertake some proper research – using pictures and polling to get a usable and meaningful understanding to publish the results and to make use of this evidence to inform the council’s strategy and development-control decision-making.”
The response was that the Council gathered no such evidence and had no interest in doing so. An utterly contemptuous attitude but pretty typical.
We can all have a pretty good guess what the architectural preference would be. Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets describes one experience in a piece for the Manhattan Institute:
“The architect of the East London estate had said that maximizing open space and river views had driven the entire design. When we asked tenants if they would trade some of this for a more conventional urban form, the answer was a resounding yes. Given the size of the estate and the densities being targeted, something much closer to the apparent preference of the community would have been possible (four- or five-story terraces of narrow houses and flats) but had not been considered. The architect explained to us, in the presence of senior government officials, that he had not been able to meet residents’ preference for streets of terraced houses: “Of course we couldn’t do that; we wouldn’t have got planning [permission] … The council would have insisted on open spaces. You just can’t build houses like that anymore, all the space standards, all the rules.”
Javid has correctly identified the problem. Now he needs to spot who the true culprits are and what can be done to prevent them causing further harm. Municipal planners will issue statements about the importance they attach to “good design” – unfortunately they are modernist structures that most people regard as hideous. There needs to be a requirement on local authorities to gather proper evidence on the design that local people want – and for those wishes to be reflected in the planning policy.
It might not be Javid’s job to say what good architecture is. But it is his job to ensure the people and not the planners decide. If the state becomes the servant and not the master of the people, then a lot more new homes would get built and be welcomed.