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Beauty committees are doomed to failure

Paul Finch

Lawyers will benefit the most from the government decision to hand more say over what is built to local communities, says Paul Finch

The government, as if it didn’t have enough things to worry about, is promoting another hare-brained proposal to speed up planning and give ‘communities’ more say over what is built on their patch, the existence of planning committees not being sufficient. Who needs elected councillors when you could go around appointing the loudest talkers on aesthetic matters?

As usual with this sort of initiative, it is short on detail. How would these little soviets be appointed? What would be their terms of reference? If a project identified as ‘beautiful’ goes racing up the planning pipeline for early consideration, it will obviously be disadvantaging other applications.

How long before we start to see judicial reviews of decisions made by the unelected, which financially benefit particular applicants? What about declarations of interest? And what happens if a planning committee turns down a paragon scheme – how does this play at appeal?

This looks like a lawyers’ paradise rather than the promotion of the views of those mysterious ‘members of the local community’ always cited as the worthy burghers who could carry out this sort of vetting policy.

You can bet your bottom dollar that first in line will be the louder members of amenity and heritage societies. They would use objections based on aesthetics to stop new buildings, rather than recognise their potential merit, aesthetic or otherwise. That is what happens in the planning battlefields out there.

Incidentally, what qualifications would be required of members of these vetting committees? It is not as though they will be design review panels, advising elected members on what projects show a good combination of commodity, firmness and delight in an even-handed way. (Good panellists acknowledge the strength of a good design, even if from a personal taste point of view, they do not like the specific project in question.)

There is now no national public body that can provide guidance and oversight as to how design advice is administered

Disinterested design advice is not difficult to come by, but there is now no national public body that can provide guidance and oversight as to how it is administered, as a recent comment from the Place Alliance made clear. This group of interested bodies is co-ordinated from UCL, and has been arguing recently about the need for some sort of national organisation aimed at improving architecture and the built environment.

For anyone who was involved with CABE, this produced a pronounced sense of déjà vu; the argument for such a body has never gone away, despite its axing in a fit of absent-mindedness by the then secretary of state for rhyming slang, the ever-ambitious Jeremy Hunt.

It looks as though if such a body were re-created, it would have to contain the word beauty in its title – as with the clumsily named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (the BBBBC!). That commission’s final report never did produce a convincing working definition of beauty, which is something of a problem when it comes to the legal processes that constitute any planning system. Hey-ho.

Retrofit’s time seems to have come

Government support for the principle of retrofit has come not a moment too soon; the fact that it has taken a pandemic to prompt thinking in this area will be soon be regarded as a historical curiosity. Congratulations to the AJ for its RetroFirst campaign, which looks as though it might have been devised in Whitehall!

The widespread support for it among architects no doubt reflects the extent to which the profession has not simply engaged with this area of design activity, but now celebrates it, courtesy of the AJ Retrofit Awards. It has almost become glamorous.

Moreover, what is good about the thinking behind good projects in this field is that it embraces the new as well as the old, unphased by the need to make radical alterations to the existing if necessary. Needless to say, this can still frighten heritage zealots like the officer of Bath Council who, when presented with Eric Parry’s proposals for reworking the rear of the Holburne Museum, declared: ‘Architect, lose your dreams’.

The fact that the project, built as designed, won multiple awards was most satisfactory.

The extension to the Holburne Museum by Eric Parry Architects was granted the Michael Middleton Special Award

The extension to the Holburne Museum by Eric Parry Architects

Source: Paul Riddle

The extension to the Holburne Museum by Eric Parry Architects was granted the Michael Middleton Special Award



Readers' comments (2)

  • Absolutely agree about "Beauty Committees", except why compare them to Soviets.
    Surely a better comparison would be with Boris' government, where anyone who is not a fully paid-up Brexiteer will not get a job.
    Reminiscent also of the ArbeitsFront.

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  • John Kellett

    Agee fully with you Paul. The government doesn’t seem to realise that the is a bunch of underworked highly qualified professionals perfect able to design to meet any sensible criteria of any BBBBC. Can anyone provide a sensible reason why an architect’s building design has to judged for aesthetic quality by a bunch of people with no knowledge of the subject?

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