Embracing beauty

Originally published on  January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It is very easy to be cynical about this week’s final report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report.

From the references to Kant to the plans for a fruit tree with every new house, Living with Beauty is full of the thinking you might expect from a group that was chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton.

And it’s not hard to see how a system based on asking for beauty and refusing ugliness could result in the word ‘beautiful’ becoming as debased as ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ by the time developers have worked out how to exploit it.

To cite one example that jars, the recommendations chapter of the report opens with a picture of Elephant Park in London, which may be an example of good design and greenery but is also the archetypal one of a community displaced in the name of ‘regeneration’ and social housing replaced by highly profitable market sale.

Yet for all that this is an important report that offers fresh support for attempts to move away from the speculative housebuilder model of development and replace it with a longer-term model that could put the meaning back into all three terms.

Along the way it poses some fundamental challenges to recent policy and practice, recommending that it should stop the sale of public land to the highest bidder, require Homes England and housing associations to pursue quality as well as quantity and find ways to turbocharge community-led development.

It’s also good to see a report commissioned by a Conservative government argue that:

‘We urgently need more affordable homes and for the ones that are built to be genuinely affordable; not just for those on the lowest incomes, but for many working families who are squeezed from both ends of the housing market. We have a proud heritage of some of the finest social housing in the world.’

To pick out a few specifics, the report directly contradicts the government on permitted development, arguing that we have ‘inadvertently permissioned future slums’ in office conversions while reducing contributions to affordable housing and community infrastructure.

It asks:

‘Do we want to be encouraging people to live within former offices on business parks miles from public transport? Do we think it is going to be politically tenable in two-storey metroland England for individual home-owners to extend their homes upwards by two storeys with no practical way for the impact on their neighbours to be considered? It seems hard to answer “yes” to these questions.’

It recommends that permitted development should be amended to require minimum space standards and adherence to local standards of design and developer contributions.

As a key part of its message about beauty, the Commission calls for future development to be based on long-term stewardship rather than short-term profit, along the way endorsing the Letwin Review’s call for a greater diversity of building types and tenures.

The report characterises the current system as a ‘vicious circle of parasitic development’ in which pressure on land and costs leaders to opposition to new homes and so to constrained building that puts more pressure on costs.

It calls for changes to a tax system that it argues penalises landowners who want to take a long-term interest in developments and better tax treatment and access to finance for those that meet a ‘stewardship kitemark’.

And the report also calls on the government to pursue one of the most overdue reforms in housing and equalise the tax treatment of new build homes and refurbishment of existing ones, arguing that this would deliver an economic stimulus at the same time as it cuts carbon emissions.

Along with a series of other recommendations, including changes to the National Planning Policy Framework and the appointment of a minister for place a champion for place in each local authority, the central idea is that beautiful places will win public consent and help to tackle delays in a planning system that is too often about development control rather than place making.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick endorsed the report today with a message that ‘beautiful, high-quality homes must become the norm, not the exception’.

But it’s not hard for a politician to say they are in favour of more beauty and more trees, much harder to tackle some of the fundamental issues that the commission says need to be addressed.

It’s less than ten years since the government abolished the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment, which promoted a very similar message about the importance of place making over housing ‘units’.

And a report from Policy Exchange earlier this week that is said to be under consideration in Downing Street saw more deregulation as the route to speeding up planning for new homes.

It will be interesting to see which way the government jumps.


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