The government’s white paper on planning reform makes frequent reference to Roger Scruton and his Building Beautiful Commission – on which I worked as Scruton’s research assistant. If Scruton had lived to read the white paper, he would have found much to like, especially its commitment to building the homes the country needs. But he would have insisted that the proposed reforms can only succeed if the government gets the details right in its plans to win the consent of local people. Consent based on drastically raising the aesthetic standards of new buildings and by enabling communities to share in the benefits of development.
The starting point of the reform proposals is the wholly correct claim that we need to build more homes. House prices in much of the South East are now three or four times higher than build costs. This has led to a precipitous fall in homeownership among young people, preventing them from settling, marrying and starting families. In the long run, this will imperil Britain’s character as a property-owning democracy, as well as imposing an enormous economic cost on first-time buyers. The principal cause of the housing shortage is that the planning system releases too little land for development, and it is greatly heartening that the government is trying seriously to address this.
As work by Policy Exchange has shown, one source of opposition to new homes is local people’s fear that they will be a blemish on their neighbourhoods. This fear is, of course, perfectly reasonable, since many new developments are precisely that. Part of the explanation of this is what is delicately known as the ‘design disconnect’, the pattern whereby ordinary people tend to like friendly vernacular styles, while architects and planners prefer some kind of modernism. This pattern has been repeatedly highlighted by research, from David Halpern’s pioneering work in the 1980s to polling on hospital design that Policy Exchange published a few days ago. The government will not be able to build durable consent for higher levels of housebuilding unless it addresses this disconnect, ensuring that new developments meet the aspirations and preferences of those who are obliged to live with them.
The most conspicuous attempt to do this in the white paper is through a new system of design codes, inspired by the pattern books of the 18th century. Local authorities will be required to write design codes that will apply in areas zoned for growth or renewal. A design code is basically a set of precise rules governing materials, facade arrangement and so on, in contrast to design guidance, which includes only imprecise objectives like ‘respecting the character of the area’. The trouble with design guidance is that phrases like ‘respect character’ are so open to interpretation that they offer a virtual carte blanche to the planners to permit what they please. The idea behind the proposed design codes is, presumably, the end of the carte blanche approach.
The difficulty here is that while design codes are necessarily more precise than design guidance, they are not necessarily any better. It is possible for planners to code for precisely the wrong things, as happens in much of continental Europe. The government is clearly aware of this, which is why there are almost ceaseless references in the white paper to the need for codes to be ‘provably popular’, ‘based on genuine community involvement’ and ‘popularly endorsed’, as well as several calls for local governments to ‘radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities’.
What the government needs to provide here is detail. Everyone is notionally in favour of genuine community involvement, but it is notoriously difficult to make it happen in practice: only a tiny and highly unrepresentative minority of people participate in planning consultations, and even they can be carefully stage-managed by whoever is running the consultation to elicit some responses rather than others. There are forms of public engagement that avoid these problems, such as the use of properly sampled visual preference surveys. But the whole value of the government’s turn to coding rests on its making effective use of such instruments, rather than falling back into the usual vices of consultation processes.
If the government gets this right then it could bring about a marked improvement in the appearance of new developments, at least according to the standards of most ordinary people. This, in turn, is likely to go some way towards mollifying local opposition. But local people have many reasons for opposing new developments, of which their anticipated ugliness is only one. To create really durable popular consent for high levels of housebuilding, the government will need to go further.
This is why I believe Scruton would have been most excited by an apparently throwaway line in this report, one which has gone completely unnoticed in the subsequent furore. This is the interest the government expresses in allowing individual streets to ‘set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see’. It is hard to overstate the significance of this idea, which was proposed in the Building Beautiful Commission’s report, and which I have defended at some length elsewhere.
Suppose a street of 1970s bungalows near a station in outer London voted themselves the right to turn into a five-storey Georgian-style terrace. At a stroke, every homeowner on the street would become an asset millionaire, at the same time as creating planning permission for hundreds of new homes and ordaining a shift to a more beautiful and sustainable urban form. The holy grail of planning policy – suburban densification – would have been attained, not by expelling people from their beloved suburbs, but by enabling them to share in the gain that planning permission creates. Immense numbers of homes could be created this way, all without touching the countryside or ruining the urban fabric with high-rise.
I am not sure that the government realises the significance of the idea it has mooted here. It should. In the long run, Scruton believed, no housebuilding system will endure if it does not secure local consent for development. If the government can ensure that its new design codes are genuinely popular, that will certainly help. But to truly bring local people on side, government needs to offer them a real opportunity to create the development they want.