Is beauty the answer to the housing crisis?

We like everyone else, have no idea what will happen next. Brexit has cast its murky shadow over everything. It is crowding out almost every idea and turned Theresa May’s government into a one-trick pony.

There is perhaps one concession to this otherwise gloomy picture. James Brokenshire, the relatively new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has in recent months embraced a new idea for dealing with one of Britain’s most deep-rooted problems: tackling NIMBYism and in turn building more homes.

Mr Brokenshire argues that the way to tackle the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ phenomenon is to pay more attention to what new houses look like. It’s not enough to build homes people want to live in, we need to build homes they’re going to want to have next door. To that end he has created a “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission and appointed Sir Roger Scrutton, a high-profile yet controversial philosopher and writer who specialises in aesthetics to run it.

The beauty agenda is the brainchild of the think-tank Policy Exchange. The essential argument of Policy Exchange’s new report, Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis is that NIMBYism can be overcome if plans better reflect people’s desire for traditional building design, like Victorian terraces and Georgian blocks. In surveys commissioned by the think-tank it was found that “85 percent of respondents across all socioeconomic groups said new homes should either fit in with their more traditional surroundings or be identical to homes already there”.

Predictably the surveys showed that the most popular types of building were Georgian terraces, with Victorian mansions third and 1960s style blocks last. Overall 82 per cent of people surveyed by Policy Exchange “thought architects should focus on designing buildings which are well built, comfortable and beautiful” and just a quarter “thought new buildings should be adventurous and different”.

The Ministry of Housing has emphatically embraced the idea, fighting off resistance from the architectural world, with one architect accusing the commission of having a “dictatorial elitist disdaining and sweeping disregard for the important work of our industry”. The Ministry of Housing wants architects to pay more attention to “design, style and community consent” a position supported by Mr Brokenshire’s adviser, Liam Booth-Smith who as the former Chief Executive of the think-tank Localis was brought up on an aesthetically challenged housing estate.

The issue of design has become the subject of serious discussion for one reason – the Conservatives are facing a crisis for liberal democracy since people are unable to get on the housing ladder. The Conservatives need to find answers to the housing crisis, and the view that NIMBYism may just be opposition to ugly, non-traditional housing is an idea that could help them out of an awkward situation. With housing often being the wedge issue that divides a community perhaps beauty is the answer we have all been waiting for?

All of this sounds lovely, but can we simply assume that by building beautiful we can build more? Put simply, no we can’t. NIMBYism is a reaction to change and it manifests itself in several forms. From a concern that a new development will change an area’s character or put an increased strain on services through to a reaction to outsiders. And let’s not forget that planning debates are often hijacked for alternative political agendas.

That’s why politicians and developers need to invest more energy and time in understanding the causes of local opposition, before trying to resolve them.

And in defence of architects they can only work within the constraints of the planning system!

Nick Vose

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