Living with beauty: the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission January 2020

Living with beauty: the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission January 2020

Living with beauty: the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission January 2020
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”    John Keats, Endymion


In July last year, I mused about Keats wandering into the British Museum and being inspired by an ancient Greek pot, which led me on to a blog about the interim report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

The commission’s final report has now been published and so I have turned to Keats yet again for some inspiration.  The report itself contains many quotes about beauty, but this is my favourite, summarising the aims of the 1909 Planning Act as being “to secure the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified, and the suburb salubrious.” Isn’t that wonderful?

And the report itself is rather wonderful too, it is a truly inspiring read and I thoroughly recommend it.

There is a lengthy discussion of what beauty in our built environment actually is, and this is one of my favourite extracts from the report

“People want to live in beautiful places; they want to live next to beautiful places; they want to settle in a somewhere of their own, where the human need for beauty and harmony is satisfied by the view from the window and a walk to the shops, a walk which is not marred by polluted air or an inhuman street.  But those elemental needs are not being met by the housing market, and the planning system has failed to require them.”

The report argues that ugliness has huge social and economic costs; beautiful surroundings make people happier and are also more valuable than ugly ones.

It urges us to adopt a new development and planning framework, which will:

  • Ask for beauty;
  • Refuse ugliness, and
  • Promote stewardship.

The report makes 44 recommendations, in 8 chapters, for changing planning policy, taxation policies and general policy towards our built environment at all levels, some of the recommendations being general  (Proposal 1 is “ask for beauty”) and some more specific (proposal 20 is “appoint a Minister for Place). The 8 chapters are

  • Planning: create a level playing field
  • Communities: bring the democracy forward
  • Stewardship: incentivise responsibility to the future
  • Regeneration: end the scandal of ‘left-behind’ places
  • Neighbourhoods: create places not just houses
  • Nature: regreen our towns and cities
  • Education and skills: promote a wider understanding of placemaking
  • Management: value planning, count happiness, procure properly

Here are, in my view, some of the highlights of the report, but it contains so many thought-provoking ideas that it was difficult to choose and I recommend that you read it in full for yourself.

In chapter 8,  Stewardship: incentivise responsibility to the future, the report makes radical recommendations for promoting long term stewardship of development, including the establishment of a patient capital fund, and creating innovative tax structures to encourage long term stewardship development schemes.  The obligation of public authorities to sell land ‘for best consideration’ should be changed so that long term schemes can be facilitated. This chapter contains some intriguing suggestions about how financial and tax incentives which encourage long term thinking can be created. 

In chapter 9, Regeneration: end the scandal of ‘left-behind’ places, the report calls for the appointment of a Minister for Place and of Chief Placemakers to be appointed in all local authorities to champion beautiful placemaking. On a more practical note, it also calls for the removal of the different VAT treatment of new build to repair, maintenance and adaptation work to existing buildings.  This must be one of the most practical and straightforward steps that government could take. At a stroke, this would remove the significant financial incentive to demolish existing buildings and erecting new ones and make the reuse of existing buildings more cost-effective. It would also help to make huge strides towards reducing the environmental impact of new buildings.  The built environment sector produces 35-40% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.  Reusing existing buildings would reduce these emissions significantly. This, for me, is one of the most significant recommendations of the report: it is clear, straightforward, and would deal with many problems all at once.  Sorting out the VAT regime would bring immediate, demonstrable environmental, financial and practical benefits.

In chapter 11, Nature: regreen our towns and cities, the report recommends asking for more access to greenery and the provision of more planting in the built environment, and to achieve this it wants the government and local councils to fund the planting of two million new street trees, to encourage the planting of urban orchards, to require one fruit tree per house and to support and encourage the regreening of streets and squares.  These recommendations are typical of the combination of general aspirations and specific targets within the report. I love the idea of urban orchards, and fruit trees in every new garden.  Fruit trees provide blossom in spring, and a free source of fruit in late summer, as well as food and shelter for bees and birds. Street trees in particular apparently have a measurable effect on human health, and it is easy to understand why this might be the case.

In chapter 12, Education and skills: promote a wider understanding of placemaking, the report recommends an overhaul of the current system of training architects to facilitate the introduction of new perspectives and ideas and experiences, so that extended academic study is not the only route in to the profession. It also recommends the promotion of professional training and training in urban design for planners and highway engineers, and also for councillors on planning committees. The report believes that there is a gap between popular taste and professional, architectural opinion and that this might be remedied, at least in part, by formal education in issues such as placemaking, urban design and the links between design and wellbeing. It characterises the current state of education as resulting in the uniform production of unadaptable boxes rather than streets lined by neighbourly frontages and facades.

The report notes in several places that Brexit may ease the route to some of its proposals, for example in the creation of the proposed patient capital fund.

The report was a fascinating, thought-provoking read and it has encouraged me to look at my surroundings in a new way and to think about how design affects so much of our everyday life. All of us in the construction field surely have a responsibility to think about the impact of what we are creating on our environment and our future.  

The photographs in the report are particularly interesting. My favourite I think is the comparison between a platform at Euston Station and one at King’s Cross. Have a look and see what you think!

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