If we want the public to accept more housing in their back yards we need to give them the skills to engage - and that must start at primary school, says Elizabeth Hopkirk

elizabeth hopkirk

Before Roger Scruton picks his appointees for the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, I’d like a word.

This month the RIBA launched the first nationwide architectural educational programme in schools.

In the pilot project more than 300 architects volunteered their time to deliver hands-on workshops to thousands of primary and secondary schoolchildren, and now that will be dramatically expanded.

It’s another example of the profession’s public spiritedness, but the initiative is much more significant than that.

We’re facing an economic and social crisis caused by a woeful shortage of affordable housing in the communities where people want to live. The government finally woke up to this when it began to affect the middle classes. It has identified that one of the barriers to providing enough new housing is public hostility to it being built in their back yards.

Ministers’ solution was to establish a commission headed by the divisive philosopher Roger Scruton to work out how we can make that housing more attractive to the public. Or, in its words, more beautiful.

Since – as we’ve known since Scruton’s idolised classical times – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this looks highly like it’s going to be a pointless exercise.

As plenty of commentators have already pointed out, if we want to build good homes the commission should be addressing issues like procurement, the commodification of housing and the near-monopoly of big housebuilders. But since the likes of Oliver Letwin and Nick Raynsford have already done this for us, why not scrap the commission, adopt Letwin’s recommendations and appoint someone like Finn Williams as chief architect.


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At the same time the government should take the RIBA’s schools programme and stick it on the national curriculum.

The best way to turn NIMBYs into YIMBYs is through education. At the moment we’re a nation poorly equipped to engage in public discussions about our built environment. Architects aside, we have neither the vocabulary nor the understanding because we’ve never been taught to think about the buildings and spaces we occupy.

If we want citizens who can critically appraise developments proposed for their communities – who can demand better-quality materials or a design that will foster neighbourliness – then we need to teach them that these things are possible.

Put this on the curriculum and you’ll also create a generation of clients who understand how to procure a building without stifling all creativity beneath a pile of risk assessments.

If this feels like pie in the sky, look at Finland which has been doing it since the 1980s. Finnish schools teach primary pupils “cultural competence, interaction and expression” and secondary school pupils to interpret the visual cultures around them. They sketch, they make models, they do parkour.

The objectives, architect Jaana Räsänen told a fascinating RIBA event this week, are to give children a personal relationship with the world around them; built environment literacy; skill in planning, design and self-expression; and the ability to participate in society.

This feels thrillingly alien because it is embedding architectural thinking at such an elemental level. But teaching children to think for themselves and engage as citizens are surely principles Roger Scruton would support.

So what’s stopping us?