HTA Planning responds to Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report, 'Living with Beauty'

Living with Beauty – Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth

Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission | January 2020

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the independent body appointed by James Brokenshire and now reporting to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, spent in the region of 14 months to tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and building of homes and places. Their final report, published on the 30th January 2020, set out to develop practical policy solutions to promote radical change but with ‘popular consent’. Its two main protagonists are the Late Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith of ‘Create Streets’.

The resultant 160 pages propose a new development and planning framework which will:

  • Ask for beauty
  • Refuse ugliness
  • Promote stewardship

It suggests that these aims should be embedded in the planning system and the culture of development.

A New Language

Whilst the Report does not specifically define the subjective terminology it uses, it does suggest that beauty ‘includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home’.

Whereas ugliness ‘means buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly, and which violate the context in which they are placed’.

The broad principles that the Living with Beauty report seeks to promote most definitely have a place in the world of planning and urban development. Many are not new ideas in the planning realm, they are simply approached from a different angle – one which is not afraid to use a more emotive language than is usually found in planning documentation.

Some Recommendations

The heart of the document is a set of 45 recommendations which sit under the following areas:

      1. Planning: create a predictable level playing field  

      2. Communities: bring the democracy forward

      3. Stewardship: incentivise responsibility to the future

      4. Regeneration: end the scandal of left behind place

      5. Neighbourhoods: create places not just houses

      6. Nature: re-green our towns and cities

      7. Education: promote a wider understanding of placemaking

      8. Management: value planning, count happiness, procure properly

Breathing Beauty into the Planning System

The proposals lend some helpful support to the planning system and the people working within it. The concepts of greater integration between all placemaking matters, democratic processes and community engagement along with a strong predictable planning system are not new ideas, but they are important ones worth repeating.

The greening of cities and towns, meeting environmental targets and regenerating abandoned places are all valid aspirations of the planning system and are shared by the people working within it.

The report suggests that beautiful placemaking should be a legally enshrined aim of the planning system – embedded in the National Planning Policy Framework and encouraged by ministerial statements. Local Plans should take this to the local level and define it through empirical research, including surveying local views on objective criteria. Schemes should be refused for being too ugly and such rejections should be publicised.

Beauty is said to include how buildings look, the spirit of the place, overall settlement patterns, and their interaction with nature. The BBBBC talk of three scales of beauty – beautiful buildings, in beautiful places, which are beautifully placed.

The authors hope to turn the planning system from its existing role as a ‘shield against the worst’ to a future role of as a ‘champion of the best’.

Refusing Ugliness

The Commission recommend that the planning system demands beauty and is able to refuse ugliness. It acknowledges that this goes right back to the origins of the traditional town and country planning system which focused explicitly on health and well-being. The implication may be that planning lost its way between now and then.

The Commission suggest a number of amendments to the NPPF, including specific references to the importance of ‘placemaking’ and the ‘creation of beautiful places’. These references should also feature in relevant government strategies and legislation.

Design Codes, Masterplanning and Zoning

Local planning policy, guidance and design codes should be developed in line with evidence of local preferences. A strong emphasis is placed on design guides and codes with recommended improvements to the National Design Guide, including its translation into a local policy guide. These would include more detailed guidance on façade quality and materials, height to width ratios, grain and plot size. It is recommended that local planning authorities should create their own design codes and use these in the consideration of planning applications.

Emphasis is placed on enhancing the powers of planners to make decisions based on design and push design and beauty to the fore of decision-making, consultation, and policy.

Greater clarity on land use and planning expectations is suggested through masterplanning and even zoning. The ‘call for sites’ process is criticised. And it is highlighted that it takes too long to prepare planning policy documents, and recommends a detailed review of how the process could be speeded up. Again, this last point is an age-old problem of the planning system and there is not a planner in the land who would disagree with the need to develop these documents faster and adapt them more easily.

Permitted Development Rights – and Wrongs

The report heavily criticises the office to residential permitted development rights and suggests that standards are introduced to the building regulations to ensure minimum home or room sizes. Local standards of design and placemaking should be applied to Permitted Development rights, and it is recommended that the Prior Approval system be overhauled. A standing ovation for this recommendation. Loud applause.

Size Isn’t Everything

The recommendations include the need for government guidance to limit the physical length and complexity of planning applications, citing long, verbose applications and the complexity of outline applications. Whilst the size and complexity of all applications is well known to be close to ridiculous, the goal of turning this around will remain out of reach while the planning system is expected to oversee such a wide range of issues and disciplines in the context of a development plan led system.   

Beauty Rewards

The report suggests a ‘fast track for beauty’, actively rewarding schemes which demonstrate beauty by aiding the speed of delivery. It is stated that a robust design policy, which is based on community engagement and which has been properly examined, can make the detailed planning application stage relatively straightforward.

This does seem to oversimplify the process somewhat, and may close the door to innovative, exciting new design which breaks away from the norms.

But Can Planning Let Beauty In?

If any of these changes are to be embraced by the planning system and brought into play, it is likely to be years before it takes hold. The recommendations are presented as a means of simplifying the system. It is difficult to see how this would, in reality, simplify the planning process, and could very well find itself filed under the list of other planning initiatives designed to simplify the process such as the introduction of Local Development Frameworks and CIL – which were driven by necessity into more complex forms which ultimately moved the system even further from simplicity.

Crucially, the overstretched local planning authority budgets and workloads must be taken into consideration. The report does attempt to tackle the issue of resourcing this potentially brilliant new system. However, not surprisingly, the answers are still far from clear in this area.

A fresh look at the funding of local planning authorities and salaries of local authority planners could have been included as recommendation number 46.

In the meantime, the Commission present a refreshing and bold approach to pushing great design further forwards in the planning system. Planners, developers and architects could all benefit from reading and absorbing the spirit of the recommendations and find a way to integrate some of the ideas and approaches put forward into their own goals and aspirations. There are plenty to choose from.

The 45 recommendations are listed below. 

1.             Ask for beauty

2.             Expect net gain not just ‘no net harm’

3.             Say no to ugliness

4.             Discover beauty locally

5.             Masterplan, don’t plan by appeal

6.             Use provably popular form-based codes

7.             Localise the National Model Design Code

8.             Require permitted development rights to have standards

9.             Permit a fast track for beauty

10.           Ensure enforcement

11.           Ensure public engagement is wide, deep and early

12.           Move public engagement from analogue to digital

13.           Empower communities

14.           Permit intensification with consent

15.           Create a recognised ‘stewardship kitemark’

16.           Provide access to a patient capital fund for schemes meeting the ‘stewardship kitemark’

17.           Create a level tax playing field between long-term and short-term approaches to development

18.           Support the right development in the right place

19.           End the disincentive to public sector involvement in stewardship schemes

20.          Appoint a Minister for Place

21.           Appoint a Chief Place-Maker in all local authorities

22.          Regenerate ‘regeneration’ to being place-led

23.          Align tax for existing and new places

24.          Encourage the recycling of buildings

25.          Encourage resilient high streets

26.          Banish ‘boxland’

27.          End the unintended bias against ‘gentle density’ neighbourhoods

28.          Create healthy streets for people

29.          Clean urban air

30.          Ask for more access to greenery

31.           Plant two million street trees

32.          Plant urban orchards – one fruit tree per house

33.          Regreen streets and squares

34.          Promote planning excellence

35.          Promote a common understanding of place

36.          Support design review but not from ‘on high’

37.          Streamline planning and shift resources from development control to strategic planning 

               partially, through revolutionising the use of digital technology

38.          Limit the physical length of planning applications

39.          Support centres of excellence

40.          Count happiness and popularity

41.           Value design as well as price

42.          Review Hones England’s remit, targets and investment timeframes

43.          Encourage Homes England to take a clearer master developer role and consider establishing a 

               code zone (‘permission in form’) approach to large sites

44.          Re-discover civic pride in architecture

45.          Monitor the implementation of this report

Living with beauty: report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

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