Does building ‘beautiful’ mean building ‘better’?

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In November 2018, Kit Malthouse MP, Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission, to be led by Sir Roger Scruton.

In short, Malthouse believes that a focus on design can accelerate housing delivery, as ‘beautiful’ developments are more likely to gather popular support from the local community.

The way new buildings are received by their local communities are usually contentious, so it is understandable that Malthouse has tried to find ways to reduce the friction within the planning process. However, beauty is subjectively in the eye of the beholder, after all.

In the subsequent months since Malthouse’s announcement, there has been soul-searching from architects, planners and councillors: what constitutes a ‘beautiful’ building and who judges ‘beauty’?

It is virtually impossible to understand the population’s perception of ‘beauty’ insofar as to incorporate a judgement on ‘beauty’ into the planning process.

Even if the country really does have a homogenous view on ‘beauty’, is it fair to apply another, and possibly more controversial, role for council planning officers to fulfil? Or is there perhaps a larger role for Design Review Panels to play? There needs to be some clarity around the parameters of ‘Building Beautiful’, this cannot be an abstract term open to interpretation to each local planning authority.

Engagement is key

In exploring how Malthouse’s plans could be realised, it has been suggested that the UK adopt a system similar to some of our European neighbours: identifying zones of development with restrictions on height and massing but with a looser approach to design, allowing a freer, more creative approach to new buildings.

However, all of this ignores the fact that the current planning system is a political one, with the public and elected politicians integral to the process. Local Plans and Masterplans are drawn up within this political context, with elected members, quite rightly, influencing the process. Defining a definition of ‘beautiful buildings’ that sets baseline parameters within which architects can work, will help to ensure that applications can be assessed to the same standards by councillors, officers, design review panels and communities.

Furthermore, the consultative element allows for local community views on developments to be heard earlier on in the design process, and there is an expectation from local authorities that developers should make concerted efforts to engage with and listen to both local residents and councillors.

Whilst clearly no one likes an eyesore, having early and meaningful conversations on the local community’s views – from aesthetics, to parking – are key in gathering community support. After all, they are the ones who will live, work and play in the developments of tomorrow. However, we must avoid buildings being ‘designed by committee’ which will simply create further obstacles to delivery.

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