After years of Government focus on housing numbers, recent calls to champion beautiful buildings and places signal a welcome return to a more holistic approach.
The Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report has a headline message that well-designed homes and tree-lined streets should be the norm.
It makes 130 recommendations - some quirky, some visionary - that will interest anyone who works in the built environment. Among these suggestions are an ambition to plant millions of trees on streets, appointing a cabinet minister for place and speeding up the planning process for beautiful buildings through a new ‘Fast Track for Beauty’ rule for councils.
The Government is due to respond to the report’s recommendations. Local authorities and developers have had views on them too. But its publication is a welcome statement of ambition and an overdue recognition that the types of places we create matter. It is also implicit within the report that ugly buildings and bad places have social and economic costs that are unsustainable and damaging to communities that must endure these impacts every day.
It is, therefore, imperative for the Government and local authorities to grasp this agenda if we are to stand a chance of hitting housing targets, whilst creating healthy, inclusive and sustainable communities.
But there are challenges ahead that all parties need to work together to address.
As founder of a practice that has spent decades advocating the importance of quality places, I recognise the importance of this challenge to do more to champion beauty in everything we do. Early, meaningful community engagement is a critical element of meeting this challenge. And with sustainability at the top of local councils’ agenda, how places embrace heritage and reduce car dependency will be also be key factors.
The idea of rewarding proposals that focus on ‘beauty’ by fast-tracking applications through the planning process should be of huge interest to the industry. Design codes will play a part in helping councils to define the standards against which beauty will be measured. But we need to go much further to embed a culture of beautiful places in planning and development.
The architectural profession has become very good at defining a designer’s perception of quality in relation to buildings alone. But the report is right to suggest that we appear to have lost an objective measure of ‘beauty’ when it relates to perceptions of value in the public realm.
This is perhaps borne out in recent studies that suggest about three quarters of new housing developments are mediocre or poor. Changing the model of development from ‘building units’ to ‘making places’ at every level – from how Homes England operates to how plans are created and approved locally - will help to address this.
When we speak to communities about regeneration and new development, we find that they are pretty clear on what’s needed in their areas. Parks, community facilities, business space and shops are all parts of what make a community vibrant – or ‘mixed’, to use the industry lexicon. These elements create spaces which bring people together. They create a backdrop for those memorable, Instagram-able moments. They are spaces which help communities thrive. There is something empowering about enabling local communities to actively shape the places they live in. They understand the places where they live and recognise what they need. If people have a chance to shape places that reflect their ambitions and desires, then there is a stronger chance that we can create the places that this report rightly champions.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said when launching the report that ‘championing quality would help us go further’, rather than hold development back.
He is right, of course, and we have a long way to go before we’re able to fully embrace the mindset set out in the report. Putting communities and businesses at the heart of place-making will be key to achieving the aims set out in this ambitious report. In doing so, we can perhaps look forward to the days when these schemes become the norm.
Edward Nash is a senior partner and founder at Nash Partnership