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Beauty commission report: fast-track planning for beauty and fruit trees for all

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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.

Comment

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.

  • 11 Comments

Readers' comments (11)

  • Some interesting conclusions a number of which we would support though how notions of beauty could possibly be legislated is beyond us being entirely subjective

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  • many welcome points particulrarly in regard to PD and VAT, however, often I salivate over beautiful new country homes by the likes of John Pardy etc.- my wife however thinks they are ugly, cold and box like. How do you legislate for that - how do you legislate for personal taste.

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  • Some good points but the fear is that it will produce a standard solution per region and large scale developers will simply use this without differene or variety. Everywhere will become its own toy town - more Poundburys - and have zero reflection of present society. Keeping architects on from concept to completion (as per the new London Plan) with a touch of the Farrell Review on place-making and this are heading in the right direction but how much longer will it take to convince gov that the main issue is asset in property and private large-volume housebuilders. Remove large profits from the property market and massively incentivise small/medium housebuilders (whilst massively disincentivising large-volume hb) and I think this will tackle the problem quicker and better.

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  • John Kellett

    I agree with much that has been already said. However turning architecture into a form of 'X-Factor' where popularity is more important than quality rather gives Scruton and Co. away.
    It is bad enough having Council planners, with very little aesthetic knowledge, imposing their short-sighted and badly judged thinking on materials and poor use of the the term 'in keeping'.
    Imposing it by government policy when the main problem is that most buildings are NOT designed by architects but by un(der)qualified 'architectural' designers who are unable to qualify as architects is even more depressing.

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  • Quite a bit of good common sense is evident in the report.
    How Housing secretary Robert Jenrick is going to handle things tonight could be interesting as the proposals fly in the face of the retrograde policies of his boss, Minister of housing Esther McVey.
    She, whose mission it seems, is to embrace all things modular; most particularly her promotion of MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) A front for the caravan/off-site industry.
    Her fealty to the dreadful trade has been demonstrated in the granting of 30million pounds to Ilke Homes who had just announced a 7million pound loss in their latest year.

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  • Notwithstanding the near impossibility of defining, let alone educating architectural students about something so ill-defined as the 'general public’s preferences' (unless of course we mean Scruton's own), it seems unfair to blame architectural education for the shortcomings of a construction industry, which so clearly puts profit over quality. During my time as a student of architecture, a practitioner, and as an academic, I would argue that the ‘empirical connections between built form and well-being’ and the ‘art of integrating new buildings into the historic fabric of a settlement’ were central in architectural education and also in the practice of the majority of qualified architects. However, these chosen arbiters of good design have little appeal to the big housebuilders, churning out standard, mediocre but presumably profitable, solutions, and are little understood by those granting approval.

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  • I am so pleased that beauty is finally being talked about as an independent issue. For too long architects have believed that beauty is a consequence of function, which it clearly is not - look around! Also the emphasis on building to please the general public rather than only architects is a real step forward.

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  • This ducks at least three difficult issues: first, the idea that there is a 'general public' which has views on which all agree (cf Brexit); second the attempt to collectivise in advance opinions about what will constitute beauty in respect of a future development; and third, the mendacious proposition that it is debates about beauty which delay planning permissions. The report has sensible suggestions, but it is flawed from the start because it cannot define beauty in any meaningful way, at least in respect of the world of housing architecture and construction. The B-word should be replaced by 'well designed', which is not difficult to define and acknowledges taste differences. The clumsily and illiterately named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission should have focused on design quality, not an abstract concept. Aesthetic theory as the 'solution' to our housing shortage is fanciful.

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  • Daniel Lacey

    "Long Live The Garden City" I hear them cry.

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  • Daniel Lacey

    And @JohnKellett, your continued rants about non-architects is becoming predictable and dull. If your theory was correct, the Carbuncle Cup would never be won by and architect.

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