The trouble with ‘Design by Committee’
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.