Travelling around Britain, one is given the sense that built up areas are mostly ugly, while the countryside is mostly beautiful. As a lover of the urban, this is distressing. For new buildings to be ugly feels as inevitable as death and taxes. But it does not have to be. Over almost a decade, a small group of activists have brought beauty into the heart of development policy. The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick's speech at Policy Exchange this week signals that a revolution is well under way, even if there is still a long way to go.
Given that almost everyone thinks that the appearance of the built environment matters, it is strange that there has not always been a strong ‘beauty movement’ in British planning. Part of the reason is that for such a long time there were so few truly ugly buildings. Buildings that were considered ugly or upsettingly utilitarian by aesthetes of the time are often treasured now. My colleague Dr Samuel Hughes calls this the 360 degrees test: if you ever come upon a Victorian building you consider ugly, perform a single 360 degree turn and you will invariably see a modern building so much worse that you find it easy to forgive the Victorians.
Another part of the reason is that those who valued beautiful buildings were often tied up with preventing loss of architectural heritage. The famous examples are, of course, Sir John Betjeman’s failed attempt to prevent the demolition of Old Euston Station and its ‘arch’, and his successful attempt to preserve St Pancras.
But for decades, Sir Roger Scruton and a small band of others – the architects Robert Adam, Quinlan Terry and Quinlan Terry's mentor, Raymond Erith spring to mind – made what was an unfashionable case for an urban environment that people could love. They resisted the continuing waves of ugliness breaking upon us. In recent years, however, they began to find allies in the world of policy.
In 2018 Scruton began a project at Policy Exchange with Jack Airey and Liam Booth Smith, who went on to work as Special Advisers at No 10 and 11 Downing Street. In Scruton and Airey’s report, Building More, Building Beautiful, they presented extensive polling evidence showing that traditional designs and urban forms outperform in terms of popularity cutting edge modernist designs with every group of the public, no matter how you slice it. Every age, every ethnicity, every income bracket preferred traditionalism. Across all socioeconomic groups, a large majority of people agree that newly built homes and properties should fit in with their surroundings – with support among DEs (working-class voters) reaching 79 per cent. This gave the movement confidence: the people were on their side.
This work was supported by an earlier series of research papers from the same think tank, Why Aren't We Building Enough Attractive Homes? (2012) and Create Streets (2013). These papers were the first to try and work out exactly why this was happening. Their conclusions were clear: firstly, local councils and plans, rather than local people, had control of design.
Secondly, land prices were so high that those buying homes could not afford extra for design. And thirdly, since the entire planning system was about competition over scarce allocations of permission, only volume builders could compete, and there was no space for competition and the potential for designs that homebuyers would have preferred.
Eventually this movement persuaded the government of its arguments, and James Brokenshire, then-Secretary of State for MHCLG commissioned what became the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, headed by Scruton himself. Samuel Hughes was lead researcher, and has continued his focus with a newsletter called Place Matters, whose second issue was released this week. Again it reveals evidence of change – that architects and planners are at least starting to take into account what the public likes and finds attractive.
The commission’s eventual report, Living With Beauty, argued that the public’s preferences should be respected, drew together evidence of what the public did prefer, and started to lay out policies that would enable locals to take control of their area’s aesthetics. Robert Jenrick’s speech this week emphasised all of the Commission’s key conclusions, promising that locals would be able to control the design and materials of local buildings, plus that hundreds of thousands of new trees would be planted.
The championship of beauty in buildings has not always been the most fashionable cause. But the work of Roger Scruton and his fellow pioneers seems to be bearing fruit at last. In January, the Government formally responded to the Commission’s report, largely accepting its recommendations. On Tuesday, Jenrick launched an ‘Office for Place’ to support the development of provably popular design codes across England. The journey has been a difficult one. But it seems that Scruton may yet have the last laugh.