The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission has published its interim report. Until April, the Commission was chaired by Sir Roger Scruton – who was ousted after being scandalously misrepresented by the New Statesman. The magazine has belatedly apologised. Since then The Commission’s Chairman has been Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets. The most obvious part of its mission is to challenge the defeatist assumption that new buildings must inevitably be ugly. Given the extent of the devastation to so many of our towns and cities since the Second World War that sense of defeatism is understandable. As the report says:
“Self-consciously and deliberately twentieth century planners and architects rejected the traditional town with its clear centre, composed facades, mix of uses and its walkable density. We have encountered in our evidence much consternation at the injuries done to older settlements though much of the twentieth century by buildings’ scale, nature and positioning.”
Despite that strong sense of gloom, it is wrong to despair. The Princes Foundation recently brought out a report with pictures of some wonderful development projects.
However, the Commission makes clear that beautiful buildings are not enough:
“Beauty is not just what buildings look like (though it does include this) but the wider ‘spirit of the place’, our overall settlement patterns and their interaction with nature. This entails both the beauty of our streets and squares, what makes them distinct and also the wider patterns of how we live and the demands we make on our natural environment and the planet.”
“What is civilisation?” asked Kenneth Clark in his 1969 television series Civilisation. “I don’t know… but I think I can recognise it when I see it and I’m looking at it now. ” As he spoke he turned to look at Notre-Dame cathedral. Defining beauty might pose similar difficulties. But what is hard to dispute is that a vast number of the concrete slabs, blocks, and towers constructed in recent decades lack it. Not even the architects responsible for disfiguring our country claim their aim was beauty. For them “brutalism” is not an insult but their life’s work.
Nonetheless to declare that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” offers a convenient excuse to give up on the cause. But the report argues:
“That beauty might be subjective, purely a ‘matter of taste’ (if that is indeed the case) is a very bad reason to dismiss it. So much in our social, cultural and political lives is subjective. Feeling is what moves most of us more than reason. Public disenchantment with so much of what has been built since the war cannot be adequately captured in facts and numbers; it is a powerful and present feeling of loss. Some argue that to talk of beauty when we are in midst of a housing crisis is a distraction. Such an argument is based on the fallacy that somehow one precludes the other – that quality and quantity are at odds.”
By the way, Sir Roger, who was a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, would not concede that it is subjective. The report acknowledges this case by adding:
“Beauty is not a veneer that is laid on top of utility. It is the most important part of utility, since it is what makes buildings and settlements into fit places to live. This is revealed in the adaptability of beautiful buildings and the disposal nature of ugliness. And this is why there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting the idea that beauty is a matter of subjective opinion, without foundation in human nature or in our desire to live at peace with our neighbours.”
It comes down to how the decisions are made:
“Currently judgements about beauty are being made covertly. Places and buildings look and feel the way they do not by accident but by choice. The problem is that that most people do not have access to the discussion about the choices or don’t feel that their voices and opinions matter.”
It is one thing to agree the planning system is at fault. Quite another to resolve what is the matter with it:
“Some believe the problem is too much planning. Some believe that it is too little. We have to understand the dynamic of different perspectives, and to get beyond them where we can. Our planning process is criticised from nearly all sides as ‘broken’, and those charged with maintaining and implementing it seem often to be de-moralised. But planning for the public good should be a noble and exciting profession. And there is much that is precious in our approach: civic involvement and the trust that this has engendered, to say nothing of the protection of many beautiful landscapes and historic buildings. So this loss of trust is a serious derogation from our inheritance. How do we win trust back whilst building enough beautiful and popular homes in the right places and in the ‘gentle density’ sustainable settlement patterns which we know are better for residents and for the environment?”
One of the Commission’s recommendations is illegal. The proposal is to have zero VAT for the renovation of buildings. Perversely VAT is charged for that but not for new building. The Commission says:
“As awareness of the benefits of a ‘circular economy’ approach to the environment and the economy increases, we should look at ways to incentivise re-use of existing buildings to prevent new build being the default ‘easier’ option. For example, we would like Government to consider the alignment of VAT treatment of repair and maintenance work for existing buildings with construction of new buildings.”
The Government would be breaking EU rules to do so. But if Brexit takes place at some stage, as some of us are hoping, that would be an entirely legal and eminently sensible reform. That is not just about bring homes back into use. There are a lot of empty derelict buildings around that could be adapted for housing even though they were originally built for other reasons. Greater flexibility of the planning rules would also help. As the report says:
“Retail planning used to be divided into ‘convenience’ (essentially food) and ‘comparison’ (non-food). These were divided into ‘bulk’ (weekly supermarket shop/buying a dishwasher) and ‘top up’ (daily or ad hoc). Then there was ‘local’ (small parades and centres of small settlements) and ‘higher order’ (city centres to which people from neighbouring settlements travel). Put simply, internet shopping and delivery has rendered this model obsolete. Landlords are therefore sitting on property held at a book value that the potential rental income no longer supports. However, it is often hard to support change of use to lower rent commercial or other uses due to rates liability. Sometimes change of use is also not permitted. Thus, too many high streets are not evolving as they need to do.”
But what the new homes look like remains the key controversy. The Commission feels that the public – rather than planners or architects – should decide. That is the way for beauty to win. They make the recommendation sound as dull as possible:
“There is greater scope to encourage the use of deliberative engagement and design processes to facilitate wider community engagement in design solutions at all levels of scale. Consideration needs to be given to how this might be better resourced whether through public / private partnership arrangements or neighbourhood planning; by adopting protocols for community and stakeholder engagement in the production of detailed visual design briefs for important sites; and through the use of ‘enquiry by design’ or similar techniques to assist the master planning of strategic and sensitive sites. There should be much greater weight placed in planning applications on the criteria set out within the Statement of Community Involvement to demonstrate how proposals have evolved as a result of local feedback. The Commission is concerned with the quality and breadth of public engagement with the plan making (as opposed to the development control) process. This needs to be systemically improved and is critical. We need to move the democracy forwards to an earlier point in the process.”
If that was given teeth it would be very powerful. Local design codes reflecting popular wishes would probably mean the end of tower blocks and a huge revival for neo-classicism. There would actually be a great advantage for developers in that there would be greater certainty in what would be approved. The long delay and costs in legal fees would be reduced.
Some imagine that the profit motive explains the failure to provide beauty. But ugly buildings can be more expensive. Anna Mansfield of the public realm consultancy, told the Commission:
“I was working on a PFI project ten years ago, and we were told by the contractor to put in a more expensive material that looked cheaper because there was real sensitivity about anything in the NHS looking expensive.”
That greater simplicity of design codes would also mean a reduced burden on the planning system. Yet the Royal Town Planning Institute, the planning officers trade union, has had the nerve to demand “more resources” if this approach was adopted. Not a hint of contrition for the harm its members have inflicted on us. Just a demand for more money. It would be naive to imagine that spending more money would do any good. The great majority of planning officers know that the public have a different view. The planning officers are convinced the public is wrong. Just giving planning officers a pay rise will not convert them to the cause of beauty.
The challenge is not money but political will. I am reminded of the failure of Michael Gove to reduce the number of children in care by persuading the social workers to be more favourable towards adoption. The social workers were not to be persuaded as they were ideologically opposed. Nor will the planners or architects by persuaded that neo-classicism is the way forward. For that change to come it would need to be forced through. That can’t be fudged. It is a battle between the planners and the people. The Government has to take sides.