Many of us worried about the focus on beauty but the BBBBC has produced a well-considered and potentially important report, writes David Rudlin
A picture caption in the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission refers to a piece of research in which students were asked to rate 12 buildings. The least popular building among the non-architects was, of course, the most popular among the architecture students. This is one of the few instances of architect-bating in a report that has come a long way from its arcane origins in the bowels of the Policy Exchange.
At one point the report bemoans the fact that “consciously adopting an old style is often felt to be somehow fake” but it also celebrates contemporary architecture. Indeed it accepts that the best buildings today are as good as, if not better than, those of the past. It is just that the “median” has fallen: the average housing estate, commercial scheme or retail development today is worse, by some margin, than its equivalent from years past.
Given the recent findings of the National Housing Audit, it is difficult to argue with this. The commission’s real target is the unthinking design, or non-design, of many modern buildings and places – the crap that encrusts our towns and cities. Having defined beauty in the interim report, the final report is less concerned about what beauty looks like and much more concerned with how beauty is achieved.
The report includes 45 policy propositions gathered under eight headings. If you can get past the rather trite headlines demanding that we “Ask for beauty”, “Refuse ugliness” and “Promote stewardship” there is much common sense here. Talking to Nicholas Boys Smith this week it is clear that while the recommendations don’t go quite as far as some might have wanted, they are calibrated to be palatable, even attractive to this government. Many of the recommendations can be done, he believes, through changes to the NPPF.
An example of this pragmatism is permitted development rights. These are roundly condemned in the report but it stops short of proposing that they be abolished, judging I suspect that this would fall on deaf ears. It suggests instead that residential space standards be incorporated into Building Regulations and that other mechanisms be devised to ensure that permitted development schemes involve “meaningful local standards of design and placemaking”. Good luck with that. The irony is that the much more radical planning proposals in the report would render permitted development unnecessary.
The headlines are likely to focus on changes to the NPPF to enable mediocre schemes to be refused. But the radical proposals involve changing the way we plan. At present planning authorities employ hordes of development managers, while the forward planning division consists of two and a half posts in a broom cupboard. The report proposes that we turn this on its head, investing in a new type of local plan to control form rather than use, allowing huge savings in development management.
These new plans should be the focus for democratic engagement, “reinventing the ambition, depth and breadth” with which we engage with local communities. The plans should be code-based and specific and, once approved, planning applications that accord with the plan should be fast-tracked. Indeed the report suggests that planning applications be digitised, including the use of AI, allowing development management planners to be reassigned to the local plan.
The report then goes on to focus on stewardship, by which it means the long-term process of master development and patient capital – in effect, the recreation of the great estates development model. One of the barriers here is the tax system, which creates an incentive to sell early (thus incurring capital gains tax at 20%) compared to long-term stewardship (which incurs income tax likely to be 40%). Schemes that sign up to a long-term approach should be given a “stewardship kitemark” affording access to long-term public investment and preferential tax arrangements.
The latter parts of the report are a bit of a hotchpotch but include many sensible ideas such as changing the “best consideration” requirements on the sale of public land and reforming the procurement practices of agencies such as Homes England. It proposes digital passports for all new buildings to ensure that promises made in planning applications are kept. Changes to planning policy are proposed to encourage “gentle density” and to give Manual for Streets the weight of policy rather than guidance.
So the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has produced a report that is actually very good and chimes with many of the things that I have written about in this column. The term beauty still grates at times but it has, in reality, been useful in drawing a wider constituency into a discussion about aesthetics. Far from being the attack of the traditionalists, this is a useful document written in language that the government will understand and hopefully take on board in the forthcoming planning white paper.