Jack Airey is the Head of Housing at Policy Exchange.
In his first speech, as Prime Minister, on domestic policy, Boris Johnson said that his Government will “emphasise the need, the duty, to build beautiful homes that people actually want to live in, and being sensitive to local concerns.”
The winner of the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s Stirling Prize – a council housing scheme in Norwich – seems to exemplify the exact sort of homes that he and other government figures are thinking of when they demand better standards of development. The homes are simple but beautiful. They are built along terraced streets to high eco standards. And, as a council scheme, they show that homes can be built to the highest quality, whether they are destined for the private market, or for social housing.
Promising people more beautiful homes and more beautiful places to live makes sense. Not only will it help to unlock support for – or at least reduce opposition towards – the building of new homes where they are most needed; it is also popular with the public. Policy Exchange polling shows that people want to live somewhere beautiful with a real identity, but around half of the public think that poor quality environments are the norm. People want tree-lined streets and homes that make them feel proud, not drab ones that look and feel like they could have been built anywhere.
The importance of building and retaining a sense of place is recognised across the political divide. As Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, said at a Policy Exchange event ‘Beauty for the many, not the few?’ earlier this year, “arts, culture, architecture – these things that come up all the time when I’m having discussions with constituents on the doorstep – they matter to people because they feel that they’re being erased from our national story.” It isn’t Brexit that voters want to talk to her about, but the town’s beautiful old buildings falling into disrepair, a high street becoming derelict and a campaign for a statue to be put up in tribute to the area’s mining history. Any party hoping to win these kinds of constituencies in a forthcoming election should take note.
The Government has recently published guidance on building beautiful places for developers and planners. But there remains much more to be done if the Prime Minister’s duty to building beautiful homes is to be fulfilled. Whichever comes first, forthcoming election manifestoes and the final report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (due by the end of the year) are big opportunities for ensuring government policy makes it as easy and profitable as possible to build beautifully. This is why Policy Exchange has published a collection of essays with new ideas for building the sort of homes and places in which people want to live. From reading each of the excellent essays, it is obvious that there are two areas which require particular attention.
Firstly, we need to encourage more landowners to develop their land in partnership with builders and architects rather than selling it on to the highest bidder. Whether the landowner is an aristocrat or a farmer, this would mean they have a long-term interest in what is built on their land. Their profit becomes dependent on the abiding beauty and attraction of the development. This would be a similar approach to the way ‘great estates’ in places like Mayfair, Marylebone and Belgravia in London and the older parts of Glasgow and Edinburgh were built centuries ago. It can also be significantly more profitable to the landowner than simply selling their land for an upfront sum.
Yet, as Charles Dugdale argues in Policy Exchange’s essay collection, the development system is geared against and actively frustrates landowners who want to take this long-term ‘stewardship’ role. There are changes to the planning regime, infrastructure delivery and the tax code which will make it easier, notably charging capital gains tax (at 20 per cent) rather than income tax (at 40 per cent) on landowner development receipts.
Secondly, we need to look at the basic principles by which land use and development is regulated. Despite existing to enhance public welfare, we seem to have created a planning system that sucks in money and productive energy at exactly the wrong points of the development process. Instead of being spent on beautiful design and good quality construction materials, huge amounts of money is spent by developers on consultants who can navigate the statutory thicket of our planning framework and on the acquisition of land at prices that are artificially inflated by local authorities rationing developable land.
The whole planning process is overly burdensome and risky when it doesn’t need to be. It is a huge barrier to smaller and entrepreneurial developers and needs wholesale reform. The Prime Minister has announced a total review of planning regulations – it is essential that this opportunity is grasped.
Beauty as a policy objective has become much more valued over the past year – and these are two ways that the Government can keep their promise to the public. What should give us particular hope, however, is that beauty is also increasingly valued by real estate investors.
As Professor Yolande Barnes writes in Policy Exchange’s essay collection, global capital markets are increasingly valuing assets for the longevity and quality of their income, rather than their future capital growth potential. This means that lenders are looking to invest in the sort of built environment in which people want to live. Ugly and alienating buildings are, in other words, no longer good economics. But beautiful ones are.