Living with Beauty

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The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission published its final report at the end of January. The commission was set up to advise the government on how to promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new build homes and neighbourhoods.

The Commission was responsible for developing practical measures that will help ensure new housing developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to be welcomed, rather than resisted, by existing communities.

The commission had 3 primary aims:

  • To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.
  • To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.
  • To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

The commission was chaired by Create Streets founder Nicholas Boys Smith with the late Sir Roger Scruton, who passed away a few weeks ago.

The report, entitled “Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth” was published on 30th January 2020. The report is 190 pages long and can be read or downloaded here.

The report sets out over 100 policy recommendations for the government and planning bodies. Our umbrella body, Civic Voice, made a significant input into the work of the commission.

Some of the key recommendations of the report are:

  • Beauty in planning. Beauty should be legally enshrined in the planning system. It should be defined through empirical research and be embedded prominently in the National Planning Policy Framework. Schemes should be turned down for being too ugly and such rejections should be publicised. A ‘fast track for beauty’ should be brought in.
  • Permitted development rights have led to the creation of sub-standard housing conditions and the government must introduce a mechanism to ensure minimum standards.
  • VAT on retrofit. The government should align VAT on housing renovation and repair with new-build, in order to stop disincentivising the reuse of existing buildings.
  • Procurement. There is an urgent need to makes changes to the procurement targets, process and scoring within central and local government and, above all, Homes England.
  • Community. Local councils need to radically re-invent how they engage with neighbourhoods as they consult on their local plans. More democracy should take place at the local plan phase, expanding from the current focus on consultation in the development control process to co-design of development. There is a need to  use digital technology like virtual reality and 3D modelling to help local people shape their own areas.
  • Regeneration. The government should commit to ending the scandal of ‘left-behind’ places. The government needs a cabinet member for placemaking, and local councils need chief placemakers.
  • Nature. The government should commit to a radical plan to plant two million street trees within five years, create new community orchards, plant a fruit tree for every home and open and restore canals and waterways.

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  • Education. There is a need to invest in and improve the understanding and confidence of professionals and local councillors. The architectural syllabus should be shorter and more practical, and the government should consider ways of opening new pathways into the architecture profession.
  • Management. The planning system needs a more rules-based approach, clearer form-based codes in many circumstances and investing in digitising data entry and process automation.

Ian Harvey, Executive Director of Civic Voice, said: “If the ambition to deliver more homes across the country is to be achieved, it must be in collaboration with communities. This report goes some way to helping that. We worked with communities from across the country to give them a voice into the Commission, and we are pleased to see the final report. This is a sensible report, with some actions that the Government can act upon straight away, but also addresses some of the more complex issues. Do we agree with everything, no, but the overall tone, we support and we will welcome.”

The report is full of very fine words but whether they will influence a government that has an inbuilt bias in supporting developers and land owners is still to be seen. With a few honorable exceptions, it is a long time since architects were involved in housing schemes.

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