The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s final report has called for a range of measures to ‘end ugliness’ including the reform of architectural education, a planning ’fast track for beauty’ and the mass planting of urban orchards
The 180-page Living with Beauty report (see attached), led by the late academic Roger Scruton and Create Streets founder Nicholas Boys Smith, makes no fewer than 45 policy propositions for how to make beautiful homes ‘the norm’.
The government-commissioned report took over a year to produce and involved interviews with over 150 experts and visits to 20 housing schemes across the country including the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia and Mole Architects’ Marmalade Lane in Cambridge.
It makes a series of wide-ranging recommendations from reducing VAT on retrofit projects – a key demand of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign – to making architectural education more practical. Its findings have been welcomed by housing secretary Robert Jenrick.
The document also calls for reform of procurement, the introduction of minimum standards for permitted development rights (PDR) and a ‘fast track’ planning system, allowing quicker approvals for well-designed developments.
It argues that the greatest ‘aesthetic offences’ – for example, it says, Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie Talkie – have been committed in places where there is no resident community to oppose them and argues for greater community involvement through charrettes or the Australian model of planning juries.
As with the interim report, Living with Beauty recommends ‘humane densification’ rather than high-rise towers and advocates Create Streets’ preferred model of mid-rise blocks, streets, squares and buildings with ‘clear backs and fronts’.
But its sections on the negative influence of modern architecture bear the clear stamp of Scruton, who was reinstated to the commission in July after being sacked from his post, and his profound dislike of ’the modernist vernacular’.
The report argues there is a ‘great divorce’ between what the general public likes and what architects and developers have provided.
This gap between ‘popular taste and professional advocacy’ was caused, among other things, by the influence of the modern movement and ‘guided by Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists’, the report says.
It adds: ‘We admire much that they achieved. But they were a dominating force, whose influence far surpassed the reasons given in support of it.
‘Their campaign against “pastiche” and “historicism” has intimidated planners and led to the uniform production of unadaptable boxes, supposedly expressive of the “spirit of the age”, rather than streets lined by neighbourly frontages and façades.’
This could be tackled, the report argues, by overhauling architectural education which often fails to give students sufficient grounding in the general public’s preferences, the ‘empirical connections between built form and well-being’ and the ‘art of integrating new buildings into the historic fabric of a settlement’.
According to the report, the ARB should make this a requirement of architecture training and the regulatory body should look into opening a route to validation as an architect ‘based solely or primarily on professional experience’.
It adds: ‘Many American states offer a pathway to licensing as an architect based solely or primarily on professional experience, and it is not clear why the British government should forbid this.’
The report argues this, alongside the new apprenticeship route, could also help overcome the ‘worrying barriers’ into the profession for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The report also calls for urgent changes to procurement processes and scoring within central and local government and ‘above all’ Homes England to stop the state ‘subsidising ugliness’.
It asks for greater weighting on design quality in Homes England’s scoring of land purchasers and development partners and greater transparency over scoring and weighting mechanisms.
As for the ‘fast track for beauty’, the report argues that developments that improve their local area should be able to make more speedy progress through the planning system.
‘The focus should be on compliance with the site-specific design policy, whether contained in the local plan or in a supplementary planning document,’ it says.
The report is critical of housing built under permitted development rights (PDR) and highlights the findings of a previous RICS report, which found that 70 per cent of homes built under the planning exemption were smaller than national space standards.
It asks the government to ‘evolve a mechanism’ whereby meaningful local standards of design and placemaking can efficiently apply to permitted development rights schemes.
Other recommendations include appointing a ‘champion for place’ in government and a chief placemaker in all local authorities and encourage councils and housebuilders to plant one fruit tree per new house to ‘reconnect children with nature and with the sources of their food’.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick is set to welcome the ‘important’ report at an event at the Garden Museum tonight (30 January).
He is expected to say there is plenty of evidence that, instead of holding housebuilding back, ‘championing quality would help us go further’.
In a statement released before the official launch, he added: ‘I am interested in the proposal of a “fast track for beauty”. Where individuals and developers have put in the time to create proposals for well-designed buildings, which use high-quality materials and take account of their local setting, it can’t be right their planning applications are held up.
‘I want to see zero-carbon homes being built as standard within five years as we learn again how our built and natural environments can work in harmony.’
Key demands of the Beauty Commission
- Beauty in planning Beauty should be legally enshrined in the planning system. It should be defined through empirical research and be embedded prominently in the National Planning Policy Framework. Schemes should be turned down for being too ugly and such rejections should be publicised. A ‘fast track for beauty’ should be brought in.
- Permitted development rights have thrown the ‘baby out with the bathwater’ and the government must introduce a mechanism to ensure minimum standards.
- VAT on retrofit The government should align VAT on housing renovation and repair with new-build, in order to stop disincentivising the reuse of existing buildings.
- Procurement There is an urgent need to makes changes to the procurement targets, process and scoring within central and local government and, above all, Homes England.
- Country House clause Paragraph 79’s use of the word ‘innovation’ should be removed as it has created a loophole for non-outstanding designs.
- Community Local councils need radically reinvent how they engage with neighbourhoods as they consult on their local plans. More democracy should take place at the local plan phase, expanding from the current focus on consultation in the development control process to co-design.
- Regeneration The government should commit to ending the scandal of ‘left-behind’ places. The government needs a cabinet member for placemaking, and local councils need chief placemakers.
- Nature The government should commit to a radical plan to plant two million street trees within five years, create new community orchards, plant a fruit tree for every home and open and restore canals and waterways.
- Education There is a need to invest in and improve the understanding and confidence of professionals and local councillors. The architectural syllabus should be shorter and more practical, and the government should consider ways of opening new pathways into the profession.
- Management Planning system needs a more rules-based approach, clearer form-based codes in many circumstances and investing in digitising data entry and process automation.
RIBA president Alan Jones The Living in Beauty’report exposes just how many public-sector policies actively discriminate against the delivery of good, safe and sustainable buildings.
The commission’s views on the value of design and lack of resource at local level are echoed by the RIBA and architects will recognise the withering assessment of public sector procurement practices.
The commission has rightly condemned permitted development rights (PDR), which leave local authorities powerless to stop the development of poor-quality and potentially dangerous ‘slum’ housing. The government must acknowledge the dire impacts of this policy and urgently address the commission’s findings.
The commission’s acknowledgement of work to expand routes to becoming an architect is welcome. I am proud of the new architecture apprenticeships and hope that the government will now take the necessary steps to restart the next stage of education reform.