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Create Streets founder replaces Scruton as chair of building design watchdog

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Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of high-density, low-rise urban housing champions Create Streets, has replaced Roger Scruton as chair of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission 

Scruton was dismissed from his role as chairman of the quango earlier this month following a row over ‘unacceptable’ comments he was reported to have made about Islam and Chinese people.

The decision to sack the traditionalist philosopher followed an interview with the New Statesman, in which he was also said to have repeated controversial views on philanthropist George Soros, who has been attacked by Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

‘Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts,’ he was quoted as saying, adding that Hungarians were ‘extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East’.

Shortly after its publication the government released a statement saying Scruton had been dismissed as chairman of the commission with ‘immediate effect, following his unacceptable comments’ and that a ‘new chair [would] be appointed by the secretary of state, to take this important work forward, in due course’.

Questions, however, were raised this weekend about whether Scruton’s quotes had been taken out of context, with The Spectator claiming he had been the victim of a left-wing ‘hit job’.

Yesterday (29 April), housing secretary’s James Brokenshire announced that Boys Smith, one of the design body’s four existing commissioners, would take over as its acting chief.

Boys Smith is best known for his work as director of Create Streets, a social enterprise and urban environment think-tank he set up in 2013 to encourage low-rise urban homes in terraced streets.

In 2015 Create Streets carried out research which it claimed showed a huge gulf between the popularity of buildings winning architecture awards and those that  the public preferred.

Writing in the AJ on the back of the results of a pair of polls commissioned by the think-tank, he said: ‘[Architectural] awards are a good indicator of popularity – but only if you invert them. To our knowledge the least popular two options have received nine architectural or planning awards. We are not aware of any such awards for the most popular option.

‘A glance at the criteria of architectural prizes is not reassuring. Few if any place value on evidence of popularity or provable correlations with wellbeing. The RIBA Awards specifically demand evidence on sustainability but not on what members of the public think.’

Boys Smith, who is also a Historic England commissioner, added: ‘The brutal fact is that a substantial majority of the British public like the type of conventional home that a child would draw but which too many in the design and planning establishment condemn.

’It is worth stressing that such homes do not need to be strictly traditional to win support. In both polls an option that respected historic forms and materials but did not follow them slavishly came a very respectable second. The public are very open to variety and novelty but ideally within a familiar pattern. But, in aggregate they do know what they want.’

Announcing Boys Smith’s arrival, Brokenshire admitted to radio broadcaster LBC that he had ‘regrets’ about how Scruton was removed from the role.

‘In hindsight I look back on the handling of this and, yes, we could have done things differently,’ he said. ‘That is something I do acknowledge. It is difficult and I’m very saddened by the whole situation as to how this has occurred.

‘I very firmly thank and recognise all of the work that Sir Roger has done on this.’

While there are no architects currently on the commission, former RIBA president Sunand Prasad and AHMM’s Paul Monaghan remain as two of nine ‘specialist advisers’.

Speaking about his appointment Boys Smith said: I look forward to leading the commission in the interim, using my and fellow commissioners experience and expertise to champion beauty in the built environment.’

 

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