The report of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is now out and there’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with the good news, and hold your breath about that word ‘beauty’ that we Brits are almost embarrassed to use (though we seem happy with ‘ugly’).
Rather than starting off the easy way with reams of text about how awful so many of our new developments are*, the report goes straight into the positives and says we should all ‘ask for beauty’ and ‘refuse ugliness’ – great. (* There is plenty on this, most recently the Place Alliance ‘Housing Design Audit for England’, a totally dispiriting read.)
The authors then move on to offer eight proposals for the future that, happily, draw on a far more thorough than usual appraisal of why design is so poor and therefore what to do about it. They highlight issues such as land values, inadequate design skills in planning authorities, the short-termism of most developers and the lack of attention to overall place-making. They then elaborate what to do to tackle these, with an emphasis on, for example, longer term stewardship, creating places not just building houses, value planning and procurement. And note that little of that is directly to do with planning policy but, again, it is all – at least in overall terms – great.
The above really is important and good and should be supported, but now the bad news. The report states that beauty can be dealt with objectively and they quote a worryingly selective and rather short list of academic research to back up that statement. On the assumption that the photos spread around the report show what the authors consider to be good – dare we say beautiful – designs, it’s interesting to note that I showed the photos to a number of ‘ordinary’ neighbours and, without exception, they considered all the designs to be ugly! And the research also misses out on the motivations of those who buy their volume developer houses. That has only little to do with design and a lot to do with a self-fulfilling assumption that such ‘normal’ (i.e. definitely not architect-designed) houses will sell easily when it’s necessary to move (as those in such developments do every four years or so).
And then there are quite a few but often rather odd statements about ‘democracy’ and community involvement, and the latter should be ‘wide, deep and early’. However, according to one of the summary charts, it is not the community’s role to ‘ask for beauty’, ‘discover beauty locally’, ‘support the right development in the right place’ or, – staggeringly – be involved in ‘promoting a common understanding of place’ or ‘re-discover civic pride in architecture’. So that’s Neighbourhood Plans in the bin then!
Yes, there are a lot of really good basic principles that should be celebrated and pushed for, but there remains a real whiff of old-fashioned elitism behind the whole report. It looks like what they wanted to say was that everything should be like Poundbury… but they didn’t dare!