Beauty

How can the planning system seek to achieve “beautiful” buildings and places?

What is beauty? How do you arrive at objectivity in matters largely of subjective judgment? Is the customer always right (and who is the customer)?

These thoughts were prompted this week by a few things:

⁃ The resolution of the Corporation of London’s Planning and Transportation Committee on 2 April 2019 to grant planning permission for the Tulip following officers’ recommendations. The application will now be referred to the Mayor who will need to decide whether to intervene (whether by call in or by directing refusal). His stage 1 report dated 14 January 2019 set out his initial concerns.

Obituaries of Bill Heine, responsible for the Headington shark. Is there any inspector’s decision letter with a better passage than this (when allowing an appeal against an enforcement notice)?

“It is not in dispute that this is a large and prominent feature. That was the intention, but the intention of the appellant and the artist is not an issue as far as planning permission is concerned. The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to “utilitarianism”, in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting…. In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them. The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate … and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a “work of art” the sculpture (“Untitled 1986”) would be “read” quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called “Oxford shark”. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.”

⁃ a nagging awareness that I probably need to cover the Government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” initiative in one of these blog posts.

Section 12 of the July 2018 NPPF sought to give more weight, in plan making and decision taking, to design considerations – see MHCLG’s press release Government’s new planning rulebook to deliver more quality, well-designed homes (24 July 2018) and there is more detailed guidance in the PPG. The press release, as with so many Government announcements, focused on the relevance of the policy changes to the construction of new homes.

Is poor design one reason why new development is often not accepted by communities? That’s the thesis leading to James Brokenshire’s announcement on 3 November 2018 of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by Professor Sir Roger Scruton.

The Commission has three aims:

1. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.

2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.

3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

The commission has five commissioners:

• Sir Roger Scruton (Chair)

• Gail Mayhew

• Mary Parsons

• Nicholas Boys Smith

• Kim Wilkie

It also has an impressive list of “specialist advisors”:

• Stephen Stone, Executive Chairman of Crest Nicholson

• Sunand Prasad, Senior Partner and co-founder of Penoyre & Prasad and past President of the RIBA

• Ben Bolgar, Senior Director of Prince’s Foundation

• Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

• Adrian Penfold OBE, Advisor in Planning and Public Affairs

• Peter Studdert, Chair of Quality Review Panels for the LLDC and LB of Haringey

• Patrick James, Founding Director of The Landscape Agency

• Paul Monaghan, Director of AHMM and Design Council Trustee

• Yolande Barnes, Professor of Real Estate at UCL

The deadline for the Commission’s call for evidence is 31 May 2019.

This “Building Beautiful” initiative, ironically as with the resi PD rights initiative where there no controls over matters of aesthetics and design, has its roots in think tank the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange published Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis by Jack Airey, Sir Roger Scruton and Sir Robin Wales, and with a foreword by James Brokenshire, in July 2018. It published a collection of essays on the design, style and economics of the built environment Building Beautiful in January 2019.

Stating the position neutrally, it is right to record that the initiative, and Scruton, have their detractors, such as Robert Bevan in the London Evening Standard – I wouldn’t build my dream home in joyless, moralistic Scrutopia (25 January 2019):

The beauty commission has emerged from a report called Building More, Building Beautiful, by Policy Exchange, a Right-of-centre think tank. One of its three authors was Scruton himself. From its cover onwards — a drawing of Georgian houses that gets the historical details all wrong — it has been many decades since a more ludicrous or ignorant report on architecture was published.”

What on earth is going to come from this process?

The visual appearance of new homes is a curious thing. Largely a private sector product with paying consumers, why are we the public often not satisfied with what the market produces, even when the direct customers appear to be?

I won’t reveal the house builder, but there was a piece this week on the BBC website about a couple who had bought their “dream home” but were dissatisfied with a number of defects in its construction. I looked at the photo below with its wrong proportions, verge/garden, largely blank side flank and clay coloured rendering, and initially wondered how a such an ugly, presumably not cheap, house could be anyone’s dream. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder – it’s a new detached home with garden, and home ownership has been promoted by successive governments as to what we should aspire.

(Photo: BBC)

The aesthetic appearance of a new car is probably the only element of its design or function that is not subject to prescriptive regulation and requirements for testing. But it is plainly critical for car makers to invest in the visual appearance of the product, so as to attract the consumer for whom the car will be an extension of the personality that he or or she wishes to express, emphasising qualities such as speed or ruggedness, elegance or urban quirkiness.

So why is the new housing market apparently so different? Is there a lack of choice such that we’re still at Model T Ford “any style as long as it looks like a child’s drawing of a detached house and garden“? Or is it the case, more likely, that the products that we see are those that have been proven to sell? In which case, aren’t there dangers in trying to funnel house builders towards a different approach?

If different products would make it more likely for permission to be obtained and for homes to be built and sold, why hasn’t this been achieved by operation of the market? What is the overlap with the Letwin “delivery” initiative (see my 3 November 2018 blog post Oliver’s Twist: Letwin’s Proposals For Large Housing Sites)?

It is all very well for the Commission’s first aim to refer to local styles of building but where is the architectural integrity in adopting a particular local building style as pastiche simply to gain community buy-in? Surely beauty simply comes from producing well-proportioned good quality buildings with a form that reflects their function (can we ban fake chimneys?) and with as much attention paid to space and landscape as built form? Do we really need the Scuton Commission or indeed any more prescriptive planning policies? Simply assess schemes against those principles, at outline and reserved matters stages, and make sure that there is no room for post-permission dumbing down. And ensure that there is a properly functioning, competitive house building market. Start with getting the market right, not the detailed design requirements (only local stone here, even though it has to be shipped in from abroad).

After all, whilst planners love to arrive at quasi-objective ways of assessing largely subjective matters (needs must, I suppose) and the tools for doing that are getting ever better (for instance, primarily in an urban context, vu.city and Cityscape Digital), save where particularly justified surely we should restrict the role of the state in telling us what we are going to find beautiful? Heritage decisions based on assessment of architectural quality are difficult. Decisions in relation to NPPF paragraph 79(e) (the green light for proposed isolated homes in the countryside where the design is of “exceptional quality” in that it is “truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture..”) are difficult. It is quite something to appoint a planning committee or inspector as cultural arbiter on our behalf and to expect their decisions not to be underpinned, consciously or unconsciously, by political or social priorities and assumptions.

I still like that shark. Jury out on Tulip.

Simon Ricketts, 6 April 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s