Scruton’s role as head of the government’s new ‘beauty’ commission will guarantee a stream of one-liners likely to play well with a swathe of the non-metropolitan electorate, writes Ellis Woodman
At the end of a year that can hardly have boosted public confidence in the probity of our political classes, housing minister Kit Malthouse’s contribution to a recent debate at the offices of Policy Exchange did little to alleviate doubts.
The evening had been convened with the aim of airing the key questions that Roger Scruton will address in his new role as head of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission so it was somewhat surprising to find that the most pressing issue on our housing minister’s mind was the response provoked by his recent tweet of a glass-fronted office building on London’s Oxford Street and a Neoclassical courthouse in Alabama. ‘Both built in the last 10 years,’ he had noted. ‘One will stand for centuries, one won’t. Our new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission will help us create the conservation areas of the future.’
At the Policy Exchange event, Malthouse duly feigned indignation at the criticism his supposedly innocent tweet had unleashed. The responses of Piers Taylor and the ‘spartist’ Sam Jacob were cited as particular evidence that the architectural profession was hopelessly defensive and oblivious to public taste.
Of course we might question the necessity of picking a favourite from Malthouse’s examples of bloated corporate Modernism and doctrinaire Greek revival or, for that matter, the relevance either has to a commission tasked with improving the quality and quantity of Britain’s housing. Malthouse gleefully pointed out that he had declined to express a preference, but cutting through this litter of things left strategically unstated and unexplained was a dog-whistle message of piercing clarity.
Framed in absurdist terms designed to provoke and frustrate anyone innocent enough to take the bait, this entirely self-generated controversy was trolling straight out of the Donald Trump playbook. The question now, is whether we should take the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission any more seriously than Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. The appointment of Scruton as its head will certainly guarantee a stream of one-liners likely to play well with a swathe of the non-metropolitan electorate. His recent Colin Amery lecture, also hosted at Policy Exchange, was full of them – albeit largely directed at dead architects. One waited in vain for any indication of engagement with the myriad technical challenges of housing delivery or, even, sympathy for a single work of architecture built in Britain in the past 200 years.
The commission is no more than a cynical exercise in political grandstanding at a time when more than 250,000 people in England face the prospect of Christmas without a home
If the new commission is to succeed it will need to secure a coalition of support from across the industry. Lacking any acknowledgement that the contemporary architectural landscape is defined in more nuanced terms than a binary division of ‘Modernist’ and ‘traditional’, Scruton’s lecture was not the most obvious means of building bridges.
On the present evidence the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission is no more than a cynical exercise in political grandstanding at a time when more than 250,000 people in England face the prospect of Christmas without a home. As Paul Finch pointed out in a justifiably fierce presentation at the Policy Exchange event, what is preventing Britain from addressing its housing crisis is hardly NIMBY resistance to Modernist housing estates but the state’s failure to play an adequate role in delivery.
In February, Nick Boles MP advised his fellow Tories: ‘This is an iceberg warning for Theresa May and the Conservative party: if we do not take bold steps to get more houses built it will sink us at the next election.’ He is not wrong but when the ship does go down, Scruton should at least have ensured that the deckchairs are tastefully painted and impeccably aligned.