Ben Derbyshire writes 'Covid-19 gives the Living with Beauty report new relevance'

But the pandemic means implementing the report’s recommendations will be an even bigger challenge

The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report concluded that we should ‘ask for Beauty’. The report correctly identified that holistic, experiential dimensions that lead to human well-being are the fundamentals of beauty. It’s easy to agree with that and bearing in mind that the covid-19 crisis hit shortly after the report’s publication, the stress on well-being is especially relevant.

The report asserts that ‘people have strong visual preferences which are by no means arbitrary and which must in general be respected, since they feed into the popular feeling for beauty.’ Also, ‘A powerful consensus has emerged concerning what people prize in the design of new developments, and about how beauty in human settlement is generally understood.’ It seems inevitable that this understanding will have been substantially modified by the experience of the pandemic to accommodate perceptions of space and amenity, indoors and outside.

In pursuit of its objective, the Living with Beauty report proposes quite intense and early community engagement processes aimed at identifying very specific and quite detailed local preferences from which design codes, both drawn and written, would emerge. The theory goes that applying these to the planning system as deemed to satisfy templates would both accelerate the approval process and ensure ‘beauty’, at least as perceived by locals.

The additional resource costs of this would be offset, suggest the report’s authors, by digitising the currently analogue planning process. Crisis accelerates change and a by product of the lock-down has demonstrated necessity as the mother of invention. Some planning committees are already meeting and making decisions online. But starved of resources over years, the investment to modernise outdated systems will take huge investment.

The recommendations acknowledge ‘that the heart of a building code is not the stylistic detail, nor even the choice of materials, but the massing, the spatial layout and the skylines, rooflines and enclosures thereby created.’ It goes on to suggest, ‘A design code that answers elementary questions… (will) allow (builders) to apply their skills to the other and more flexible aspects of placemaking.’

And the thinking is crystallised in a specific proposal which, to judge by the warmth with which the report and its author have been received by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, will almost certainly be the subject of serious consideration.

Policy proposition 6 calls for the use of ‘provably popular form-based codes’. It says, ‘Local planning authorities should develop more detailed design policy interventions… We believe that form-based codes and non-negotiable infrastructure including green infrastructure (as with the Community Infrastructure Levy) are often appropriate ways to embed quality in a popular and predictable way.’

Indeed, since a national Design Code is already in development at the communities department, we can expect that more local and detailed development may soon follow. Hopefully, this will have been informed by the pattern already emerging of disproportionate suffering amongst those living in overcrowded conditions or who are impacted by various forms of disadvantage. Indeed, these are factors that will need to be taken into account in policy-making well beyond the scope of the Living with Beauty report.

But clearly Prince Charles wanted one thing, and to judge by his reaction, he got another!

HTA Design has long experience of both the engagement processes that form the basis of the ‘Living with Beauty’ policy proposals, and the preparation of our own masterplans and design codes intended to deliver the outcomes arrived at as a result of consultation. We also have experience of working with design codes prepared by others in our role as architects for a wide range of developers and homebuilders.

This experience is decidedly mixed, and has provided evidence, as if evidence were needed, of the law of unintended consequences. This was personified in the frown of disappointment on the face of Prince Charles as he toured an exhibition of the early phases of Upton Northampton, where we were amongst a number of architects standing in front of displays featuring our various interpretations of phases of a highly detailed, not to say prescriptive masterplan prepared by EDAW and Alan Baxter Associates. At 114 pages, packed with written and drawn detail, the Upton masterplan must surely be pretty close to what the authors of Living with Beauty have in mind. Nothing wrong with the masterplan and design code, per se; nothing wrong with the schemes. But clearly Prince Charles wanted one thing, and to judge by his reaction, he got another!

There are insufficient resources in the current system to realistically hold developers to account for the delivery of adequate quality, never mind beauty

Our resident engagement experience shows that significant resources are needed to build trust, broaden engagement, maintain interest and meaningfully evaluate alternatives. Due consideration should be given to Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 ‘Ladder of Engagement’ which classifies participatory techniques according to their motivation and intent. The bottom rung is no more than manipulation, rising through increased degrees of participation through therapy, information, consultation, placation, partnership, delegated power, finally reaching the top rung of full citizen control. So, be in no doubt; meaningful engagement demands sincere intentions and significant resource commitment.

Local planners will continue to be severely stretched in the covid-19 aftermath. There are insufficient resources in the current system to realistically hold developers to account for the delivery of adequate quality, never mind beauty. It’s clear that successful implementation of the Living with Beauty report demands a solution to the problem of skill and resources. It would be the worst of all worlds if attempts were made with inadequate resources for either engagement or preparation of design codes. If the local community were to end up feeling they had been manipulated, and poor execution resulted in a Bowdlerized version of their vision, it would not have been worth the effort to revolutionise the system.

We heartily endorse the serious intentions of Living with Beauty to invest in a planning system capable of engaging with citizens in a process of co-design of the built environment. If policy proposition 6 of the report is ever to emerge as the default approach across the nation, we will need to get there gradually in a process that builds skill and resource carefully where it is needed.

Our recommendation would be to start with a programme of specific large-scale projects such as urban extensions or garden cities, embedding good practice in Local Government. We do not see how widespread roll-out across all 343 Local Authorities at once could be made to work. Evidence clearly shows that beauty is sometimes obtainable now. We must learn what it takes to create beautiful places consistently if, as we deserve to, we are to live with beauty always.


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