Ben Southwood is an independent researcher.
A tradition of conservative philosophers from Burke through Chesterton to their successor, the late great Sir Roger Scruton, has emphasised the hidden wisdom in the rituals, traditions, laws, and institutions surrounding us. Societies tend to slowly evolve a culture that deals with their problems – shocks can push things out of whack for a time, but cultural norms adapt.
According to a groundbreaking report from the government commission which Scruton chaired, the post-war changes to the UK’s planning regime were another such shock. He suggests a few ingenious tweaks that can make the system work for society again, enhancing beauty while providing housing needs.
Readers of ConHome will probably know the story of Sir Roger’s chairmanship of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Appointed amidst controversy, Scruton was dismissed in April after seeming to make unacceptable remarks in an interview with the New Statesman. It later transpired that those remarks had been misrepresented: the New Statesman apologised and Scruton was reappointed, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer in the very same week.
Scruton poured his remaining energy into finalising the Commission’s report, attending meetings in a wheelchair and working closely on drafting the text with his friend and Co-Chair Nicholas Boys Smith. I am told that he was still working on the finishing details in the final days of his life.
The result of this labour, entitled Living with Beauty, was published this week. It is a triumphant vindication of Scruton’s appointment and in many ways, a fitting culmination of his life’s work, uniting depth of vision with a wealth of empirical evidence and policy detail on one of the great issues of our time. The fundamental thesis is stated in its introduction:
‘Our proposals aim for long-term investment in which the values that matter to people – beauty, community, history, landscape – are safeguarded. Hence places, not units; high streets, not glass bottles; local design codes, not faceless architecture that could be anywhere’.
The report’s core insight is that beauty is important. The aesthetics of buildings affect others: you are forced to see eyesores whether or not you built them yourself, while you can enjoy beautiful buildings, villages, and towns whose construction you had no part in. Towns have even larger effects on others: if built well, they free their residents with clean air, public commerce in squares and streets, walkable amenities, and the ability to build community through easy resident interaction. If built poorly, ‘green space’ is forbidding and unused, roads are dangerous and tedious to cross, and commerce encourages anonymity rather than interaction.
Beautiful buildings are conserved and adapted, like the Victorian public buildings that survive long after their initial uses have gone. Ugly buildings are torn down and replaced, at a huge cost.
Scruton argues that, in some ways, the Victorian and Edwardian system served this goal well. Rules were simple – with six-storey height limits and rules over design, but not much else. The arrival of new materials, new modes of transport, and new design ideologies changed this. But the report is no paean to the past.
We cannot abolish the car, or work without modern materials, or return to the unthinking belief that there is only one possible style in which to build. Nor ought we to do these things, even if we could. Instead, we must learn to live with the changes that they have wrought, to preserve the many blessings while overcoming or mitigating the difficulties. The solution is not to wish away the modern world, but to work to humanise it.
How, though, to build new traditional towns, given the changes of the 20th century? And how to improve and expand those we already have? And further, how to make sure our cities and suburbs can provide the living space demanded by their larger and richer populations?
Throwing cash at people is not always enough to get the right sort of changes. Even if it were, the main current techniques – Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy – don’t necessarily mean money where the public actually want it, nor do they guarantee the development will improve, rather than worsen, the place overall.
Scruton’s report proposes forty-five tweaks to the current regime to create a structure that allows us to protect and enhance the beauty we are bequeathed plus make our own contributions for posterity. By enshrining beauty, it hopes also to raise faith in the planning system and new developments and create more support for development that ameliorates housing shortages in parts of the country.
One suggestion is removing the distinction in the tax system between demolishing constructing new buildings (which is zero-rated) and improving or adapting old buildings, which faces 20 per cent VAT. A second is that local design codes could be simplified, but based on local tastes and preferences through consultation.
Another could be more transformative. Since 1947, homeowners have been mainly banned from extending their properties as they could before then. The planning system has effectively frozen a particular form of suburbia in place. It has done this by nationalising the ancient right to extend one’s home: even when there is an acute shortage of homes, the planning system effectively bans people from, say, redeveloping their bungalows as five-story Georgian-style terraces. This is one of the root causes of the housing shortage, and of the failure of the twentieth century to reproduce the rich fabric of older cities.
This solution of allowing streets to vote on whether residents would all like to have the right to expand their properties, in line with local preferences echoes a recent proposal from Jacob Rees-Mogg, among others.
“The government should investigate ways of facilitating gentle suburban intensification and mixed use, with the consent of local communities [and] allowing individual streets to vote to opt in to limited additional permissions, subject to design codes.”
In time, we can repair areas that have become dilapidated; rejuvenate high streets that have lost custom and strengthen communities.
“In the older areas of English cities, it is still common that one can walk, not only to shops for groceries and household goods, but to primary and secondary schools, a library, a post office, a church, several pubs and cafés, a war memorial and a town hall. Neighbourhoods like this bring well-known health benefits to their residents by encouraging walking. But they also feel different since, to put it simply, they are alive. In these public spaces, strangers become neighbours, and a community is formed.”
In short, the report shows us how this country can be cherished, not bulldozed; enhanced, not uglified or preserved in aspic. Its themes of heritage and community may appeal to conservative minds like those of Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary and Esther McVey, the Housing Minister.
So far, Sir Roger’s contribution to Britain’s institutional development has primarily been theoretical. His final gift is more practical. In the post-war period, housing policy was socialist: the state erected concrete slab blocks and master-planned New Towns like Stevenage and Basingstoke. Since the 1980s, the state has stepped back from building new towns or big council blocks, but the housing market has come to be dominated by the likes of Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey.
Scruton’s legacy offers an alternative that will allow people to conserve and improve the places where they live.