A fast-track for beauty and an end to ugliness?
While all of us can list - probably many - examples of ‘ugly’ new housing developments, the ‘beautiful’ list may be considerably shorter. In her first blog since joining the CIH policy and practice team, Hannah Keilloh looks at the final report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission published its final report Living with beauty – promoting health, wellbeing and sustainable growth on 30 January. In it are recommendations to government to reverse this trend and ‘refuse ugliness’.
As a planner recently joining CIH, with my new ‘housing hat’ on, what did I take from this long-awaited report and its recommendations?
While ‘beauty’ is of course highly subjective, my first thought on reading the report is that the definition of ‘beauty’ is reassuringly wide, encompassing “everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home.” The emphasis is heavily on placemaking rather than just building houses, making clear connections between well designed places and enhanced health and well-being. The recognition that beauty is not just a matter of how buildings look but of the spirit of the place and how it works and feels as residents experience it, particularly resonated with me, as I am sure it does with anyone who has ever visited an identikit development of low build-quality homes with little connection to greenspace and basic amenities such as shops and children’s play space.
Policy proposals are made in eight different areas with the intention of embedding the aims of ‘asking for beauty,’ ‘refusing ugliness’ and ‘promoting stewardship.’ Beneath these eight areas for change sit 45 specific policy recommendations. Those which really stood out for me included:
• requiring permitted development rights to have standards and a very clear set of design rules;
• aligning tax for existing and new places so that is no longer cheaper to build new rather than bring an existing building back into use;
• a ‘chief placemaker’ in every local authority team; and
• an increased focus on nature and ‘greening’.
Multiple specific changes in wording to the national planning policy framework are suggested, as is an overhaul of the plan-making process including an increased use of masterplans and design codes to provide greater certainty in the planning application process and ensure plan-led regeneration. Changes in the decision-making process include increased use of design review panels, a ‘fast-track for beauty,’ and more robust enforcement for non-compliance in relation to planning conditions and obligations. The intention being to turn the planning system round from “its existing role as a shield against the worst, to its future role as a champion of the best.”
Overall, I felt this was a constructive report. A greater focus on placemaking and ‘beauty’ in its widest sense, can hardly be more needed than now. While the burden on over-stretched local authority planners is acknowledged in the report and recommendations are made in terms of a cultural shift and a greater focus on design training, in reality a huge financial investment will be needed to enable planners to deliver these ambitious changes and overcome the year-on-year cuts of the last decade. It will be interesting to see if the government is willing to put the money behind really making this step change.
While we may not agree on what makes new houses ‘beautiful,’ I am sure all of us working in the housing profession will agree that providing the new homes we need is not just about the numbers. In line with the cross-cutting theme of the report, homes need to be of good quality and well designed in terms of the places they create in order to be able to meet our country’s housing needs for generations to come.