The eye of the beholder

Do you remember the house that looked like Hitler? It was a big news story a few years ago. There is also a great website called Ugly Belgian houses that highlights some of the planning-lite horrors in that odd country.

Yes, these properties are ugly, but to their occupants I am fairly sure that beauty comes low down their list of worries. Let them be warm, dry, affordable, safe and secure and then let’s worry about how they look.

This is the main quibble I have with “Creating space for beauty” the recent report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It has a whiff of the upper classes preaching to the plebs about their ugly homes.

The Commission was established by the government to, “tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent. One of their advisors is Peter Studdert, former Planning Director in Cambridge, for whom I have a lot of respect. The planning sections of this report (his work I assume) are very readable and constructive. Another advisor is Dame Fiona Reynolds who as DG of the National Trust led the opposition to the pro-development National Planning Policy Framework. She is now Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge.

You will recall that the commission’s original chair, Sir Roger Scruton was sacked after a New Statesman character assassination and then reinstated, so this interim report was put together under the chairship of Nicholas Boys Smith, Founding Director of Create Streets  a campaign that was set up to promote “…high density, beautiful, street-based economically and socially successful developments with strong local support and which residents will love for generations.”

So this report reads very much like a Create Streets production.

Anyway, apart from the preachy bits, I see three key problems with this report. The first is that “beauty” is never adequately defined. One person’s beauty is another person’s ugly Belgian house, and vice versa. The report admits as much, as these extracts show:

Briefly, there can be no direct definition of beauty that will be immediately accepted by everyone. Beauty, like truth and goodness, has an ultimate and foundational character. Take it away and you undermine the bond between human beings and their world. We pursue beauty, as we pursue truth and goodness, because in doing so we are realising our nature as free, self-conscious beings. And because the need to do this is so profoundly embedded in what we are, we can never find a definition of beauty that is not trivial or paradoxical. The question ‘what is beauty?’ is therefore no more susceptible of a straight and clarifying answer than the question ‘what is truth?”…

Beauty is about our whole approach to land use and the way we live and is about process as much as outcome. It will require not just different approaches to building design but land use and different processes that work more effectively with more people.”

And so on, for several pages, with references to poetry, philosophy, our deep feelings, Octavia Hill, John Ruskin, Greek literature, the “Gestalt character of places etc… At this point, Private Eye would add in parentheses (cont. p94).

Secondly, there is a conflict between beauty and practicality that is never fully addressed in this report. The Houses of Parliament and a row of thatched chocolate box cottages are beautiful, in the eyes of most people. But both are a nightmare to maintain, in terms of cost and time, and the latter has stupidly low ceilings, poor internal arrangement, and mice and birds living in the thatch. There is a big difference between looking at a place and occupying it.

Thirdly, the solutions in the report are rather wooly, more like a list of wished-for outcomes rather than practical policies to achieve beauty. For example, the report identifies “eight priorities for reform”, including “Beauty first” with “great weight” (a planning term) being placed on beauty in the planning process, followed by “places not just houses”. Planners should be able to reject ugly schemes (actually, the NPPF allows this already). Other proposals include, “Early collaboration not confrontation…involving local people better in making beautiful places” and, “A level playing field to encourage a greater range of small firms, self-build, custom-build, community land trusts and other market entrants and innovators to act as developers within a more predictable planning framework”, followed by “Growing beautifully with higher densities in some places.”

The report quotes plenty of polls, and related research about attitudes to development, but to believe that nimbysim can be overcome by involving people (“bringing democracy upstream”) and putting forward beautiful designs is a tad optimistic, in my view.

The authors favour brownfield development, especially retail parks, and densifying cities and towns, rather than building on greenfield and Green Belt. It is not clear how London’s future housing needs could be met by this approach.

The land question, and the fact that the house building industry is entirely dysfunctional due to the way that the Land Compensation Act over-values land is barely mentioned. Nor is government investment in genuinely affordable housing discussed at any length. As John Boughton at Municipal Dreams has shown, investing well and wisely in social housing can produce homes that are affordable and popular, and beautiful too.

The authors admit, “This is an interim report and we do not pretend that all these proposals are fully formed” A final report will be issued later this year. But if you like longwinded descriptions of beauty, and highbrow quotes from philosophers and poets then this is the report for you.

(This blog was first published by The Housing Quality Network) 


One thought on “The eye of the beholder

  1. Thanks for the common sense. In every village in South Oxfordshire the ex council houses built just after WW2 are des res and at a premium. Larger plots room for expansion and design that not just the House Martins love. Councils got a lot right in those days. Beauty was not on their mind but decent homes.


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