Nicholas Boys Smith: New homes and places can and should be beautiful

1 Oct

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and a Fellow in Urban Design at the University of Buckingham.

Do you remember the old Bob Monkhouse joke? “When I told people, I wanted to be a comedian, everyone laughed – they’re not laughing now.” I feel a bit like that this morning.

Six years ago I chucked in my job to set up the social enterprise Create Streets, to argue on the ground, in councils and in parliament that new homes and places should be more popular, more beautiful and developed in line with the strong evidence of the types of places which people like and where they want to live. Real places with real centres and “gentle density” of terraced homes and mansion blocks benefiting both from the advantages of lower density (more space, cleaner air, less stress) but also from the advantages of greater density (more walking, knowing more of your neighbours, more sustainable energy usage). People are healthier and happier in such places and, if they can afford it, will normally pay more to live there.

But everyone, or nearly everyone, laughed. Those on the right, I was told, only cared about feathering the nests of the big developer friends or in a ‘bonfire of the regulations.’ Those on the left, I was informed, only cared about maximising the number of social homes. Everything else was a middle-class distraction.

Well maybe most people do care about the quality of new places after all. Slowly, calmly, rationally and I hope politely we have made the case for creating streets of beauty and popularity not lumpen, over-crammed tower-blocks or sprawling drive-to cul-de-sacs. We have made the case by talking to officials, councillors, MPs and developers. We have made the case by working for neighbourhood groups, councils (of all political colours) and landowners. And we have made the case by asking the big questions that somehow get missed out of too much of the political debate about planning and new homes. Why do people oppose new housing? (Design is not the only issue, but it is one of the big ones. Expectations of new developments are just so low). What are the similarities, and what are the differences, between the English planning system and those in other countries? And what are the discoverable relationships between urban design with happiness, mental health, physical health and crucial attributes of the good life such as knowing your neighbours, breathing clean air or not feeling stressed and overwhelmed as you go about your daily business?

There is a revolution of available information now accessible to urban researchers and we have made use of it gleefully, modelling, for example, every property sale in six British cities in 2016 or exploring human reactions to 19,000 streets and squares. We have probed important issues – such as the “design disconnect” whereby most professional planners and architects have provably different tastes to the wider public. And we have highlighted the fact that too many of the volume housebuilders barely use architects or urban designers at all. Something is going very badly wrong in how we create new places, or rather how we don’t. As one very experienced engineer put it to me yesterday having reviewed a live estate regeneration plan in South London, “I saw this in the 1970s – we’re building the slums of the future again.” Small flats. Long corridors. Over-density. Ugly sheer buildings. Unclear public and private space. We’ve been here before and it did not end well.

It is time for a change. And, step by step, we are making progress. We work with all parties. Liberal Democrat councils have cited our work in their manifestos and asked us to improve their development processes. Labour councils have asked us to review their plans and their engagement with residents. Some councils and housing associations have started, routinely, to seek our guidance on good and popular design or in setting their development framework for land they own. Above all, time after time, almost daily, put upon and harassed neighbourhoods and community groups have approached us. Rich or poor, young or old, north or south, the story is always a variant of the same: someone we do not know from a company we have not heard of is trying to do something horrid to our neighbourhood. We think something better is possible. Can you help? Funds are normally very tight but wherever we possibly can, we do.

Other think tanks and specialist housing charities (from Policy Exchange to Shelter) have picked up elements of our argument and evidence. And earlier this year, in a bold and admirable move, the then Secretary of State for Housing, James Brokenshire in conjunction with the excellent former Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, formed the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission to investigate how new places could be more beautiful and more popular to ease the undoubted pressures on supply. I co-chair this alongside Sir Roger Scruton who has risked ridicule all his life by daring to think and write about beauty. The Commission’s creation was met with a tsunami of criticism from some professionals. However, rather to their own surprise, our interim report, published in July, was met with wide-spread professional support. The humane case for popular place-making is just too strong for all but the mono-minded to ignore.

Yesterday, in a highly welcome move the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, has announced the Government’s new design guide crammed full of good sense and good guidance on the types of places that people like and in which they flourish. It’s great to see the Commission’s work already being taken forward. For the first time, ever I think, and in the teeth of the perverse, self-defeating and provably false architectural fetish that “what buildings look like doesn’t matter” it has dared to make the case for buildings that actually look, well, nice. (As our book and major statistical study, Of Streets and Squares, shows you can predict what people will like very readily indeed: variety in a pattern, complexity and composure in the façade, a sense of place and some level of symmetry and colour are normally winners with the public. Sheer glass, spreadsheet regularity, over-sized buildings, or chaotic facades are normally losers).

This announcement is particularly timely because if we are going to ease the supply of new homes by making it easier for SMEs, self-builders, market entrants, modular innovators, councils and small landowners to build more homes and affordable homes then we need to remove the regulatory barriers to entry which have led to the most concentrated home-building market in the Western world. This in turn means changing the nature of “planning risk” and moving the democracy forward from the development control process to the Local Plan. What and where you can build, and what and where you cannot, should be more certain so that it is easier for a wider range of providers to create homes. But they should only be freer to do so within a clear carapace of locally acceptable designs and betterment taxes – certainly if they want an easy ride through planning. The best regulatory systems are predictable and consistent. Ours is the opposite of this. Despite the decency and deep honesty of planning officials, the system is just too discretionary at present and is thus most open to those with the deep pockets who can risk millions on working up hundreds of pages of planning applications. As one developer put it to me, “The worst thing that can happen during a planning application is that a development control officer changes.” This is not how it should be.

This is why the most exciting part of the design guide is the bit that has not yet been published. It talks rather coyly of a section which will set a code for local councils and neighbourhoods to adapt to their needs. This is the crucial bit and would get away from subjective and pointless arguments over ‘good design’ (which just feather lawyers’ pockets) and instead set the types of segment, street ratio, façade pattern and material that are acceptable ‘around here.’ This would be a quiet revolution. It would make our approach to planning more similar to that used in, for example, Holland or an increasing number of cities in the US. In such places a clearly visual and numerical framework (sometimes called a form-based code) is set for certain places, defined locally. Within that framework it is very easy to build and the SME, self-build and custom-build markets flourish.

Beyond that framework, it is very hard indeed. This is not a new idea. Many of our Georgian or Victorian streets (certainly those in London) were created under statue that set very clearly what you could build but were very liberal about your right to build it. Indeed, the development patterns of towns and cities have always and always will be regulated. It is part of the irreducible core of what government does. The externalities are just too great for it to be otherwise. (Do you want a tannery next to you? Or a thatched roof come to that?)

So this is very welcome news and the government is to be warmly congratulated in facing down the siren voices. And it is great news for Create Streets – though I don’t think we’ll be out of a job any times soon. So much of what is currently being built is just so inhumane in its conception and design.

What should the government do next? It should more firmly bed popular design into the National Planning Policy Framework. It should dare to turn down a few developments because they are just too hideous. And it should follow through with the next stage of their design guide so that what you can build is more firmly and visually defined locally in a process agreed with local citizens. Create homes and places, streets and squares of beauty and walkability. Sometimes the answer, or part of the answer, has been staring us in the face all along.