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The beauty brigade should learn lessons from green belt law

Paul Finch
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Imagine what a field day planning lawyers will have when the politicians and their advisers start trying to write ‘beauty’ into the NPPF, writes Paul Finch

Scepticism about the way in which the ideas of the clumsily named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) can be incorporated into planning law has just been strengthened – by a legal action over what constitutes ‘openness’ in respect of development on green belt land.

A planning application was made to extend a limestone quarry in green belt, south-west of Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, the quarry having been permitted in 1948. The proposed 6ha extension was granted permission in 2013, a permission subsequently quashed because of failings in the environmental impact assessment.

Shutterstock 1464328961

Shutterstock 1464328961

Three years later, the county council granted a fresh permission following advice from its planning officer and principal landscape architect, who did not object to the proposal but suggested that mitigation measures would be necessary to counter landscape impact.

The neighbouring Samuel Smith brewery objected strongly and launched legal actions to overturn the permission on the grounds that the extension and the mitigation works would permanently change the quality and character of the open landscape. An argument developed about the relationship between ‘openness’ and ‘visual impact’. The High Court upheld the permission.

Next, the case went to the Court of Appeal, where it was held that National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) para 90 made clear that visual impact was a potentially relevant and significant factor; the planning committee had mistakenly granted permission on the basis of defective advice from the planning officer, despite that advice being highly praised in the High Court.

However, on 5 February the Supreme Court supported the planning officer, reversing the decision of the Court of Appeal. The quarry extension can go ahead. The matters relevant to openness in any specific case, it ruled, ‘are a matter of planning judgement, not law’.

Imagine what a field day planning lawyers will have when the politicians and their advisers start trying to write ‘beauty’ into the NPPF. They will have a problem defining it – something the BBBBC cannot do, instead relying on general local opinion, however that is to be measured or validated.

Vague aspirational language will not do when it comes to the precise matter of planning law. Words are analysed microscopically by judges at every level and the introduction of a beauty criterion is bound to cause endless problems.

As far as the ‘B’ word is concerned, I have always admired the ringing tones of John Constable: ‘There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.’

Fixed views about beauty suggest the benefit of a narrow consistency. If you want to know where it leads to, look at the fatuous intervention into architectural matters of President Trump. His insistence that federal court buildings should be designed in Classical manner is an embarrassing reminder of the cultural link between that style and slavery, which enriched but ultimately destroyed the USA as an Edenic society.

Trump is not a dictator, but culturally he is beginning to behave like one

Politicians, especially those who assume dictatorial powers (Stalin, Hitler), can’t leave art, architecture and music alone. They assume that there is a ‘correct’ way of writing, designing or composing, thereby guaranteeing a world of perpetual ambiguity and anxiety for the arts under dictatorships. Trump is not a dictator, but culturally he is beginning to behave like one.

Back home, we had better watch how the wind blows following whatever Cabinet reshuffles may turn up. Let’s hope that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government doesn’t end up being run by politicians under the mistaken impression they are, or should be, cultural commissars.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Finally a salient article Paul, was getting a bit bored of the boomer bluster.

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  • Planning lawyers will win on this one but expert witnesses from all sides will get their say too.

    How appropriate that there should be letters from Adrian Forty and Ed Jones about Bob Maxwell in the same issue. To quote Forty - ‘Bob believed architecture was an art, but you could still have theories about it , even if those theories weren’t like scientific theories’.

    The debate will continue and Maxwell, Barthes, Rowe and Banham as well as more than a few great minds will be having their say. I look forward to it.

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