You might not feel that it always comes to the fore in these straitened times, but one of the principles that underpins planning is the pursuit of beauty. And it’s the absence of beauty that is at the heart of the Policy Exchange’s report, Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis.
Co-authored by conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton and former Labour Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales, the report recommends how design and style should form a greater part of the planning process.
As it explains: “We gravitate to places which are beautiful… for the simple reasons that beauty is a sign that other people matter to us: the pursuit of beauty is a way of caring about the common good.”
The report acknowledges that in our current market “good design is often an afterthought” due to the business model of the developers, which drives them to squeeze as many units out of a site as they can.
This manifests itself in smaller living spaces, reduced ceiling heights and buildings that crowd together with little thought for the wider sense of placemaking.
This model is part of the reason why the major building developers in the UK post such substantial profits year-on-year.
With these companies, architects’ skills are curtailed by their employers’ margins, and therefore it falls to the planner to ensure that beauty is included as a core element of a scheme.
But recently the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) found that planning function has been relegated to lower positions in the corporate structure of local authorities across the UK.
Of the 212 councils it looked at in terms of management structure, it found that 83% put planning two or three tiers down from chief executive, which reflected a wider trend for planning to be downgraded within LAs.
So if we put the onus on the planners to drive this process, the question is, will planning be boosted – either financially or reputationally – to enable it to fulfil this role?
A central theme of Building More, Building Beautiful, is the idea that the housing crisis will only be solved if the developers of new homes place more emphasis on design and style to gain the support of existing communities.
In his foreword, James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, states that meeting unit targets isn’t sufficient, but rather we should look at the quality of what we build, as much as the volume: “We don’t just want to build estates, we want to create communities.”
Commendable stuff, but I don’t see that quality has a direct correlation with increased housing delivery. Perhaps through the fact that better design will be more acceptable locally, and therefore limit opposition, which is doubtful. However, I do believe that we need higher-quality design as a baseline.
For me there is a fundamental question of what ‘good’ looks like. While explaining that the report is not a debate about ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ architecture, it does find that most people side on the ‘traditional’ in terms of ‘good’ design and what we should be building.
“Questions of modernism versus traditionalism, brutalism versus classicism are secondary to whether design has been prioritised at all. As the nation therefore gears towards building tens of thousands more homes per year, more architectural values are needed, not fewer.”
In comparison to many other countries, the United Kingdom retains its buildings for a long time. This is part of the logic behind building better in terms of design, to help prevent future generations being saddled by mean-spirited estates that are disliked almost from the moment they are built.
This has a price tag. Like the open-market spec building companies, the housing associations that are building are extremely cost sensitive too. But this has less to do with maximising profits and more to ensure that they can create as much affordable housing as possible.
However, unlike some open-market developments, the work of housing associations is typically attuned to local communities and their needs.
The major builders that create most of the homes in our country build to maximise profit margins as much as possible, with the average new build being decidedly average indeed.
Very few people who’ve experienced the rolling brick estates that have come to dominate our housing supply would say they feel like nice places on first impression, with houses that exemplarise good design.
They still rely on a historical interpretation of traditional housing, but with practically all design features stripped out or streamlined in the pursuit of margins.
But we are starting to see more developments come to market that exemplify good design, just look at any awards shortlist and you’ll see the quality is there – but it just seems to be a minority.
So it would seem it is the planners lot to ensure that beauty is not forgotten in the delivery of housing, as the report states: “… it is clear planners have a critical role in the process of furthering and safeguarding the sense of place.”
What the report finds is that there is a significant dominance in preference for new homes to fit in with their surroundings, according to those people polled, who were in London and the South East.
It also found that, across the board of the SE and inner/outer London, that most preferred the idea of traditional terraced with tree-lined streets, followed by housing developments or estates in a modern style. Medium-rise buildings were also palatable to the London respondents.
Having established the fact that the public has a preference for design and style, the report puts forward recommendations for revisions for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
In addition, the Policy Exchange puts forwards recommendations for local design and style guides, including design-focused advisory panels and locally acceptable designs and styles for buildings created using Modern Methods of Construction.
Linked to this it recommends that developers should benefit from accelerated planning permission for developments that evidence these design and style codes.
In addition, on smaller sites, permission in principle should be in place when similar conditions are met. And across the board, planners should view favourably developments where local public input has been sought early on.
The report also puts forward arguments to guarantee community representation in the local planning framework, such as a consultant architect on projects, and the allocation of areas of ‘Special Areas of Residential Character’ to ensure design complements strong local examples.
These recommendations could represent a conundrum – in that their ideas are good, but overall the recommendations put the onus on planning departments to safeguard design, without allocating financial support to drive this process.
Equally worrying, as evidenced in the South East, is the confirmation that people like what’s local – which equates to houses in the majority of our housing supply. For me, it’s imperative that we move to medium-rise buildings as a form of housing supply as density is key to housing delivery.
These buildings need to break out of the centre of towns and cities, and start to colonise transport hubs such as train stations. This is already happening, and must be of good quality to attract local endorsement, but may not be immediately acceptable to small communities. So where does the weight of the argument sit?
However, one of the most positive findings of Deltapoll’s research was the fact that close to 80% of respondents support the building of garden cities, and these really hold the key to density.
But throughout all the recommendations, I would argue that Custom Build and community-led housing typically exemplify the type of design that the report argues in favour of: higher design credentials, better space between houses and community-support.
Therefore it would follow that we should see more Custom Build happening!