Housing and Planning

The trouble with ‘Design by Committee’


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The recent outrage surrounding Roger Scruton represents the latest instalment in the never-dormant culture wars. Scruton’s appointment as the government’s new ‘housing Tsar’ has succeeded in animating the world of Political Twitter and its strange inhabitants. Once again, Left and Right, conservative and liberal, are doing battle over yet another – largely symbolic – government position.

I don’t share many of Roger Scruton’s views, though his ongoing social media assault seems largely based on quotes taken out of context, and in any case, unrelated to the aesthetics of housing. But here’s a thought. Instead of scrutinising Scruton’s character and trawling through past utterances for signs of offence, why don’t we instead question the worth of having an advisory committee for ‘Building Beautiful’ in the first place?

After all, a policy of ‘design by committee’ has already been the cause of much of the ‘uglification’ of British architecture. The period when we broadly stopped ‘building beautiful’ by most people’s standards, coincided with the centralisation and bureaucratisation of building in the 20th century. Local authorities, charged with the task of rebuilding city centres after the Second World War, became all-powerful patrons of architecture – a decided shift away from the private individuals who had, for centuries, dominated the architectural landscape. The 1950s and 1960s saw the wholesale destruction of many a historic town centre and its replacement with utilitarian ugliness.

There is also the danger that the committee might end up making recommendations that could exacerbate the housing crisis.

Were input entirely restricted to state-owned buildings, then perhaps the committee might serve some use (though it could still be a waste of public servant time.) But we’re all aware of the modern government’s tendency to overreach, to over-legislate, and over-complicate procedures. When the committee inevitably dips its toe into the private sector, not only could it obstruct housing crisis relief – but could serve to exasperate one of today’s most pressing political issues.

It’s hard to see what, if anything, a committee focused on ‘building beautiful’ will do to address NIMBYism in Britain. There is a danger that a focus on ‘beauty’ gives homeowners a ready-made, government mandated excuse to say ‘no – not on my patch.’ ‘Building beautiful’ might help rural Britain maintain its beauty, but, in isolation, may not do much to improve access to affordable, convenient accommodation – something which only a planning regulation bonfire can achieve.

Relaxing these regulations will be essential to promote affordability, but could also have positive aesthetic effects. Ironically, the state, via UK planning law, has made it all but impossible to build the most highly-prized types of housing, like Georgian-style terraces and Victorian mansion blocks. Despite the fact that these styles offer high density – more than the tower blocks often despised by locals, our complex regulatory regime would probably rule out the Georgian terraces of Islington and Notting Hill, were they being built today. Why?

As outlined by the Adam Smith Institute, more compact cities have cost, as well as convenience advantages – and initiatives like the government’s plans to build on high streets are promising steps forward. The vast majority of the population value aesthetics, of course, but above all, we want to be able to afford somewhere relatively convenient to live. Right now, all but the wealthiest are locked out of enjoying beauty, affordability and convenience all at once, but relaxing our planning laws could help address these problems at source.

At Conservative Party Conference this year, I saw Roger Scruton speak on the Policy Exchange ‘Build Better, Build Beautiful’ panel. He is eloquent, well-mannered, and clearly knows his subject inside out – however much I may disagree with him. Yet his view of what constitutes ‘beauty’ seems nostalgic and romanticised. His speech poured scorn on Birmingham city centre, while zealously defending the Green Belt, harking back to rolling hills and manor houses. These are undoubtedly lovely things, but irrelevant to modern city life, the area most in need of a surge in beauty.

The biggest problem with a committee on ‘building beautiful’ – even one with a renowned aesthete like Scruton on board – is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From fashion to music, art, nature and buildings, we have wildly differing tastes and preferences.

Instead of proposing a government mandated idea of what people think is attractive, we should let ordinary people decide where they want to live, and give developers the freedom to build it.

Matt Gillow is the co-founder of neoliberal opinion platform 1828 and formerly Managing Director of grassroots campaign group TalkPolitics.


4 thoughts on “The trouble with ‘Design by Committee’”

  1. Posted 12/11/2018 at 13:39 | Permalink

    Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it emerges from nature and symmetry, values embodied in all of art bar so-called “modernism”; beauty represents and conduces to health. Many studies have demonstrated that hospital patients recover more completely in beautiful surroundings – a neoclassical nursing home, for instance, rather than a carpark style mega-sanatorium. Why do people flock to cities such as Venice or St Petersburg if not for the beauty? And no, it’s not “history” or nostalgia which call to them, nor is it chauvinism for Europeans go equally to Angkor Wat or Machu Pichu. Are you really suggesting that they might as well traipse around the Bull Ring?

  2. Posted 12/11/2018 at 18:46 | Permalink

    People like to visit Venice. But to live there is a different matter. It’s cramped and wet. No-one would live there if it wasn’t famous, and we certainly would never build it today.

    It’s size. That “neo- classical” nursing home isn’t big enough for many modern places. My local hospital is twenty times the size you could sensibly build in a style like that.

    We need modern styles for modern building. Harking back to old styles is hopeless, because they were built for different reasons, and they don’t suit modern requirement (fire escapes on a neo-classical? — they can burn to death rather than have ugly).

    I’ve seen a fair number of old buildings that are beautiful on the outside but dark and narrow on the inside. Whereas many modern ones are light and airy on the inside, regardless of their grim exterior.

    And someone still has to pay for this beauty.

  3. Posted 14/11/2018 at 00:32 | Permalink

    Christ – The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand came out in 1943, and we’re still having the same ****ING conversation. When will individuals have the freedom to build what they want. Your land / Your choice in my book. If people build something ugly and unappealing nobody will buy it off them so market forces will drive up innovative beautiful design – certainly more than a nostalgia trip enforced by corrupt, nepotistic, bureaucratic councils.

  4. Posted 18/11/2018 at 17:18 | Permalink

    “Your land / Your choice in my book. If people build something ugly and unappealing nobody will buy it off them”

    have you ever gear of slum landlords?

    and just becuase sommeone writes a book doesnt mean anything will change.

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