The new prime minister has stuck the knife into almost everything else but the Beauty Commission has somehow survived – and may prove to be an unexpected ally for the profession
There were a couple of moments during Boris Johnson’s Manchester speech on Saturday when I had to wonder if the new prime minister had been reading Jane Jacobs.
He was talking about how London had turned itself around from the decline of the 1960s and 70s to regain its position as a world-leading city.
He identified the four basic ingredients of success as liveability, connections, culture and, finally, devolved power and responsibility.
Liveability required safe streets, affordable homes, good jobs and great public services, he said, while connections boiled down to broadband and transport. “Inspiration and innovation, cross fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete, collaborate, invent and innovate,” said Johnson.
He went on to conjure an image of a talented “young kid in a deprived town with intermittent transport” who can’t get to where the jobs are; those places where the diversity of people sparks flashes of creativity.
There is something here of Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet, and certainly of her analysis of the rich human and built ecology of great cities.
How will Johnson help this kid meet other creative minds? He pledged support for “northern powerhouse rail” – though critics claim he is merely reheating an old promise and pointed out that in almost the same breath he had ordered a review of HS2. He pledged improved bus services – “I love buses. I helped to invent a new type of bus [designed, of course, by Garden Bridge collaborator Heatherwick], very beautiful that it is”. And he pledged better broadband.
All these things will be part of his trumpeted £3.6bn towns fund which will also be spent on “that vital social and cultural infrastructure, from libraries and art centres to parks and youth services: the institutions that bring communities together, and give places new energy and new life”.
This sounds like good news for architects although, given that he has pledged cash in the last few days for every conceivable special interest, from genetic research to space flight, one can only wonder if he’s found a bumper pack of seeds for magic money trees under the doormat at No.10. Or that he’s softening up the nation for an election.
Not surprisingly for a former mayor of London, housing is a Johnson priority – which is also a good thing – though there will be an ideological return to a home ownership agenda after Theresa May’s laudable support for other tenures. It remains to be seen what this change of focus will mean for the burgeoning build-to-rent sector.
Johnson identified the gulf between those who can afford their own home and those who cannot as “one of the biggest divides in our country” and to that end vowed to “review everything – including planning regulations, stamp duty, housing zones, as well as the efficacy of existing government initiatives”.
That last might have spelled the end of the Building Beautiful Commission, just days after James Brokenshire reappointed Roger Scruton to its helm. This would have been no surprise since worthy built environment commissions are routinely mothballed by incoming ministers – witness Farrell, Letwin, Raynsford.
Instead in his next sentence he indicated that the BBBBC, which was set up by former housing minister and key Johnson loyalist Kit Malthouse, is here to stay. He said: “We will… emphasise the need, the duty, to build beautiful homes that people actually want to live in, and being sensitive to local concerns.”
He couldn’t have made it clearer that his government remains a believer in the slippery notion of beauty as the best way to convince communities not to oppose urgently needed housing developments in their backyards – even if his motivation is partly wanting to reward an ally.
Architects, then, will be breathing a sigh of relief that the commission’s interim report, published this month, contained many sensible ideas and demonstrated that co-chair Nicholas Boys Smith – once pilloried for being on the “wrong side” of the style debate – has listened carefully. It is clear he has come to understand that planning and procurement are key to delivering high-quality new neighbourhoods, and that is something for the profession to cheer.
And of course it hardly needs saying that this is about more than work for architects – it’s about creating sustainable communities and safe buildings.
Given the unprecedented number of new brooms sweeping into the housing ministry and every other department in the last week – and Johnson’s famously short attention span – we may find ourselves relying on the once-derided BBBBC to be the voice of consistency and reason in future government policy-making on the built environment.