Ike Ijeh is Head of Housing, Architecture & Urban Space at Policy Exchange.
When the Marble Arch Mound rightly attracted worldwide derision last year few might have foreseen that it could eventually have equally seismic political reverberations too. But the law of unintended consequences might well have struck again in last week’s local elections with the Conservative party’s historic loss of Westminster and Wandsworth councils.
The reasons for these losses will be subject to forensic dissection for some time but we can already safely conclude that national issues like the cost-of-living crisis would have played their part. But, reassuringly from a local democracy standpoint, local issues invariably played a role too and one of these might have well have been amongst the most unexpected: namely, the increasing proliferation of bad architecture that both councils have misguidedly championed in recent years.
It is important to deploy perspective here, one does not need to be a psephologist to conclude that architecture and beauty are not necessarily uppermost factors in the electorate’s voting decisions, lofty colonnades are hardly likely to succeed in boroughs where low Council Taxes couldn’t. But it is also undeniable that bad environments irritate residents and irritated residents vent their frustrations at elections.
Take Nine Elms for example. Doggedly pursued by Wandsworth as a totemic regeneration undertaking primed to supercharge the borough’s housing delivery, it is nonetheless an arid vertical minefield where every turn runs the risk of an articulated architectural ambush so shocking that it is already the subject of near-universal design ridicule before even reaching completion. Poor sales also suggest that the public may be voting with their feet as well as at the ballot box.
In recent years Westminster has arguably fared worse. With more listed buildings than any other council in the country, it was once an exemplary custodian of fabric and heritage. But in recent years it has mounted a spectacular rebellion, defiantly promoting a slurry of anodyne office blocks and towers around Paddington, lining Victoria Street with a squadron of barren commercial barracks (including the startled beehive replacing New Scotland Yard), aesthetically castrating Oxford Street by replacing key heritage assets like its flagship M&S store with faceless glass drones and infamously insulting Nash’s graceful Marble Arch by erecting a pointless pustule beside it.
As for the Mound, the furious reaction of Westminster’s Labour members last year perhaps provided an early clue as to how effectively bad architecture can be weaponised as a tool to extract political capital. But it also demonstrated the unfortunate prevalence of a corrosive practice that afflicts local councils far and wide: poor public consultation.
Nobody would recommend an X-Factor built environment determined entirely by public vote. But on the other hand, too many residents have felt disenfranchised by a planning system that they feel shuts them out of the process. Central government has made reassuring noises about encouraging communities to have a greater say on local developments, most recently in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech. And as part of its Building Beautiful programme think tank Policy Exchange, which has long championed placemaking prioritisation and community involvement, will shortly release a paper calling for the public to be polled on newly completed buildings.
Better consultation may not prevent bad architecture but at least, come election time, it may prevent the blame for it falling largely on politicians’ heads.
This strategy is not without risk for in examples too numerous to mention the wishes of residents and councillors do not always align. A classic architectural example is the pedestrianisation of Westminster’s Oxford Street. This civic hot potato has been kicked around council chambers for decades with the mayor, the London Assembly and even the last Conservative council supporting some measure of pedestrianisation on the world-famous shopping street.
But implacable opposition from well-heeled local residents (and, most recently, council jitters over a repetition of the disastrous Marble Arch Mound fiasco) have been able to kill proposals stone dead at every turn. How do we square such a circle? The answer is obvious: compromise. And how is compromise in an urban environment context best achieved? Through public confidence in good design that promotes beautiful architecture and places.
Nobody should be under any illusions that were Nine Elms less ugly or had the demented preening cockerel of the red-breasted Nova Building not been permitted to screech its visual obscenities across Victoria that Tory councillors in both wards might still be in power.
But places are now political and even the government’s recent Levelling Up White Paper recognises the value good places offer in any programme of economic recalibration. Conversely, any regeneration enterprise that weakens the sense of place and replaces it with the kind of globalised identikit architectural anonymity that Westminster and Wandsworth have recklessly imposed unroots its residents and gently frays the intricate bonds that tie them to their communities and their surroundings. And unsettled communities make for more unpredictable voters. These are not principles that should be alien to conservatives.
Politics is by its nature an alienator; every political position however well-meaning requires the implicit rejection of another. Design on the other hand is a mediator and on an urban level has the potential to bind different groups and people together by physically embodying shared sentiments of pride and citizenship. Beauty won’t lower taxes or improve services. But were any political party to attempt to mount a recovery on a local or national level, they would be wise to both acknowledge and exploit the subconscious electoral currency that beauty and design offer.