Those who think the Roger Scruton-led commission is an attack on the profession are misunderstanding its intent, writes housing minister Kit Malthouse
To reach 300,000 new homes a year is going to take a quantum leap in output for the housebuilding industry in its widest sense. From bricklayers to planners, developers to councillors, surveyors to building inspectors, everyone will have to put their shoulder to the wheel if we are to successfully reach that target by the mid 2020s. It is an immense challenge and my job is to devise the means by which all these actors have the finance, rules, skills and supplies they need to build.
But my biggest challenge by far will be convincing the British people that the land needed to solve the housing problem lies in their suburbs, villages, cities and towns. The numbers are daunting: 300,000 homes a year means approximately one million under construction and something over four million in the planning system.
The only way we stand a chance of winning support for this output is if people like what we build – beautiful buildings gather support; blank ubiquity garners protest and resentment. If you get the design right – the scale, the context, the fitness – communities will feel enhanced and respected, and will lay down their petitions and placards.
The vitriol was immediate – I was incompetent, ignorant, sick and a fascist – and that was just from the architects
This is why we’ve started a debate on quality and design with the launch of our Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. As we did so, I wanted to test the water and see if the architectural ‘style wars’ were in abeyance and whether there was space for a rational debate, so I tweeted a deliberately polarised picture of Apt’s [formerly Robin Partington & Partners] Park House, a glass commercial building on Oxford Street, alongside HBRA’s Neoclassical Tuscaloosa courthouse in Alabama.
I didn’t express a preference but I did claim that one would last for centuries and one wouldn’t, without specifying which. The vitriol was almost immediate – I was, among many other things, incompetent, ignorant, sick and a fascist – and that was just from the architects. The debate seemed to be framed by a profession that assumed it was under siege from people who are too stupid to know good design when they see it.
Yet while beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, taste, what the public likes, is more objectively measurable. And it is surely the taste, not only of the occupants of new homes, but of those who live near them and have to accept them, to which we should pay more attention. Given that only 10 per cent or so of new homes have ever been near an architect, far from attacking the profession, we are actually attempting to win them more work. Our new commission will urge developers to make room for beauty, to let architects rip, for only they can save us from the blankness.
If there is one thing I achieve as housing minister I want it to be that articulation, detailing, proportion and vernacular become words used in the design of mass domestic architecture once again, for they are largely absent now. We must all surely aspire to build the conservation areas of the future, and I am convinced that unless we do, we will not receive the co-operation of the public in this, our most urgent moral mission: building the homes the next generation deserves.
Kit Malthouse is minister of state for housing