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Beauty is as beauty does

Town houses in the Timekeepers Square development, Salford | Image by: lowefoto / Alamy Stock Photo

7 min read

Can imposing a call for beauty on England’s planning system help fix our places and turn around our pitiful housing shortage? Andrew Brightwell reports

It’s a simple idea: win over Nimbys by reassuring them that new developments conform to their ideas of beauty.

But can ‘design codes’ – part of the Conservatives’ big hope for breaking down the barriers to housebuilding to help level up – prevail? Or are efforts at ‘placemaking’ a distraction, even an obstacle, to a simpler, better planning system?

Ironically enough, says Nicholas Boys Smith – a former banker and Conservative special adviser, now charged with proving they can – it all started with a trip to B&Q to buy pot plants.

“I noticed they were knocking down an estate literally on my journey to do that. [On returning home] I got on the laptop and got curious as to what they’re replacing it with, Googled it and, at a rather superficial level, I wasn’t very impressed,” he says.

An unsatisfactory call to the man in charge would lead, eventually, to Boys Smith campaigning for traditional forms of ‘gentle density’. The idea – Boys Smith has described it as “a network of beautiful streets and squares, of mansion blocks and terraced and semi-detached houses” – has grown popular in Conservative circles. 

After co-chairing the Building Better, Building Beautiful (BBBB) Commission, which helped to shape the government’s ideas for planning reform, Boys Smith became interim chair of the Office for Place (OfP).

The body will support councils’ attempts to ensure beautiful, sustainable places are built through design codes that will be part of local plans, a requirement of last year’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Act. Local authorities will set parameters for what good-quality design looks like in their area, choosing their “geographic coverage, level of detail and degree of prescription”.

Councils will consult on the plans, giving residents a say. Developers will benefit from a more transparent guide to preferred design. If successful, the government hopes it can help soften resistance to building, easing the path to more homes in the right places, while keeping constituents happy. Or at least that’s the plan. 

With Labour ascendant, and questions raised about the seriousness of levelling up, can ‘beautiful places’ really offer an answer to our housebuilding woes?

If more prosperous people keep choosing them, that’s still telling us something

Much of the source code for the Office for Place can be found in BBBB’s 2020 report, with the demand “ask for beauty, refuse ugliness and promote stewardship”. It is a paean for placemaking, the idea that places, not just buildings, require careful thought and design. 

Boys Smith says it recommended – and secured – changes to national planning policy that “development be good, not bad”, making it easier for councils “to turn things down for being badly designed”. It also called for councils to adopt design codes to create what Boys Smith calls a “fast track for beauty” to speed up development that meets their requirements.

Boys Smith says the report helped to establish that “the way we’re developing new places is wasteful of the landscape and deeply unsustainable and just sprawling out into the countryside”. 

He tells The House that there is “empirically robust evidence” to link “what [places] look like, what buildings look like, the enclosure ratio of streets, the level to which they are car dominated” and their popularity and benefits. The presence of street trees is linked to “cleaner air, with people walking more, knowing your neighbours more”, and “traffic moving more slowly”. 

And while you can quibble if that’s causation or correlation, “if more prosperous people keep choosing them, that’s still telling us something”.

While Boys Smith’s and BBBB’s championing of beauty has its critics, it’s a matter of established fact that England has a problem building homes. 

The government and Labour are aiming for 300,000 homes built a year, but some experts suggest the targets are too low. And the National House Building Council said just 133,213 homes were completed in the last year.

Boys Smith says that our “very discretionary planning system” is part of the problem. “Far less clarity is set in what we call the local plan. And far more is left to the discretion of the case officer on a case-by-case basis.” While this “very Anglo Saxon” system has advantages, he says it makes building more financially risky, cutting out smaller housebuilders.

Matthew Carmona, professor of planning and urban design at University College London (UCL), says for residents who lose a view of green fields to development “no matter how beautiful that place is, they’re not going to want it”. 

But there is evidence, he thinks, that better designed places – addressing residents’ concerns that they relate to their surroundings, connect to public transport, and integrate greenery and ecology – “will make development more acceptable”. He says: “I think I’m personally sold on the argument that better design is more popular. But whether you would attach beauty to that is another question.”

Nonetheless, he is worried that there “just isn’t the capacity, the skills available” in local authorities to apply design codes effectively at the local plan level – suggesting they work better on a “site-specific” level. 

“One of the problems that we have with the planning system in this country is [that] every government of whatever colour thinks that by bashing the planning system, they’re somehow going to deliver more houses. And they’re not. The planning system works exceptionally well in places that are well resourced and invest in their planners and in their planning system,” he says.

Similarly, Andrew Taylor, group planning director of Vistry Group, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, supports the focus on design, but worries the codes could even slow down development. “What I’ve seen so far is that they can be very long, and far too detailed – rather than just setting out the three-to-five things that are really important to focus on locally. And therefore they can be far too complex for what is required,” he says.

A former senior council planner, Taylor says the planning system is overburdened. “Energy efficiency, for example, should be in building regulations, imposed nationally. Because that hasn’t happened, every council across the country has introduced its own policy,” he says. It heaps pressure both on authorities and those looking to use the planning system. 

“The response becomes: ‘Well, the system is more complicated, so we need to simplify it – by using things like design codes.’ But I’d argue that if you put things back where they are supposed to be, we might not need to do that.”

In response to Taylor’s point about complexity, Boys Smith says: “Design codes have to be about de-risking ‘good, ordinary development’ in a way that is locally acceptable and easy to interpret and use. The Office for Place’s 10 criteria is signalling that very clearly and our accreditation criteria and application will need to do likewise in the detail.”

New housing development at Great Kneighton, Cambridge: Image by: Julian Eales / Alamy Stock Photo

And he agrees with Carmona about English planning’s excellence, calling it a “Rolls-Royce system”. But “it is unique internationally in its lack of clarity. A clearer – and locally led – definition of ‘good’ is about freeing up [councils] to use their resources more effectively and efficiently by having clear rules for what is locally acceptable. Our role at OfP is to help councils to start doing this.”

In the past, Boys Smith has said England’s planning system has nationalised the right to build. Should the Labour Party arrive in office he will need a different argument. At the moment, Carmona says there is little detail to the party’s ideas, except “bashing the planning system”. 

In October, at Labour conference, Keir Starmer announced the party’s target of 1.5m homes in its first five years, suggesting that he would “get Britain building again”. News reports from the day of Starmer’s speech include him committing to a “new planning rulebook encouraging Georgian-style townhouse blocks”. But, curiously, no such reference to gentle density appears to have been delivered by the Labour leader in the final version.

Whether Starmer would back the Office for Place and design codes remains to be seen. But an English vision for formal, traditional urban development may well be here to stay. Only time will tell if championing it can help us to finally build more homes.

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