The beauty commission’s report is full of welcome ideas, writes Elizabeth Hopkirk. Now the government needs to act on them
There is a telling illustration in the government’s long-awaited Living With Beauty report.
It contains two aerial photographs. The first is of the Italian city of Siena, with its famous central square – which Jan Gehl considers one the world’s finest public spaces – surrounded by narrow twisting streets. It’s the kind of place it would be hard not to agree is beautiful.
The second is an aerial view of a motorway junction in Houston, Texas. The curving lanes have their own beauty when observed from above, but you don’t need great imaginative powers to know that it would be a horrible place for coffee with your neighbours.
The caption tells us: “The centre of Siena and a highway interchange in Houston are of similar size. The first is a home to 30,000 people; the second is a home to no one.”
Beauty was always going to be a tricky subject for an objective report commissioned to tell ministers how to make building lots of houses more palatable to the public. The then housing secretary James Brokenshire (or his advisors at Policy Exchange) correctly identified that the aesthetics of new developments plays a significant role in whether they attract the paralysing wrath of Nimbys.
He set up a commission called Building Better, Building Beautiful and then appointed Roger Scruton, a philosopher with much to say on beauty, to chair it. In the eyes of most architects, each of these acts was akin to lobbing a hand grenade into the debate. But at the same time they recognised a rare opportunity to engage with a government that appeared to be genuinely interested in making housing better. Last week’s national housing audit demonstrates for any deniers how execrable most of our housing currently is. The reopened Grenfell inquiry provides an even more sobering lesson.
To be fair to both sides (as they could originally be characterised) the architects rolled up their sleeves and the commissioners listened to them. The profession’s reasonably warm reception to today’s report shows the “sides” have become blurred.
The rapid turnover of housing secretaries does not fill one with much confidence
Living With Beauty, published just weeks after Scruton’s death, can’t resist dragging style wars into its commentary in places. But to their credit the commissioners were quick to understand that beauty is about far more than the look of individual buildings – and that achieving it requires far more than hiring a traditional architect.
The report is full of sensible practical suggestions such as using more visual and digital means to engage the public early in a project’s life, upskilling planning departments and committees and ending the ludicrous VAT incentive not to refurbish, as well as appointing champions of place in every local authority and even giving one a seat at cabinet.
Sound familiar? Well yes: versions of quite a lot of the recommendations were in Terry Farrell’s review carried out for the coalition. Only a handful of his 60 recommendations were ever implemented. Can we have any confidence that the similarly admirable Scruton report will fare any better? There are just as many powerful vested interests ranged against it.
One key difference is that at this point five years ago the government changed, just as it was meant to be responding to Farrell. Like it or loathe it, all the signs are that this government is here to stay, meaning there is time for it to translate more of its 190 pages into policy, should it be serious about the need for major reforms.
The odds of this happening will be significantly improved if the current housing secretary Robert Jenrick – who appears to have as much enthusiasm for the commission as his short-lived predecessors Brokenshire and Kit Malthouse – survives the revolving doors of the expected forthcoming reshuffle.
>> Also read: Lipton and Farrell wade into Scruton ‘beauty’ row
A minister of place is a great idea, as is training local politicians to understand the complexities of our broken planning and development system. But we also need to see that intent demonstrated at the highest levels, and the rapid turnover of housing secretaries does not fill one with much confidence.
Brexit – which is now just hours away – has torn our country in two. Trust in each other and our institutions has been shattered and could take generations to restore. One element of that healing process needs to be close attention paid to the way we create homes and places.
Churchill’s aphorism, “we shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us” is well known. As Peter Barber said in his lecture to the East End Preservation Society last week, we can’t use architecture to control people (nor should we seek to) but we can use it to encourage certain behaviours, like chatting with our neighbours.
If Living With Beauty is the way to get this on to the government’s agenda, then great. Over to you, Jenrick.