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Is a fast track for beauty a good idea? The problems with the government's big planning idea

We all want good-looking buildings... but do we all agree on what they are? Why a deceptively simple sounding idea might actually be very divisive

9 January 2024
5 minutes read
Aerial view of a bustling neighborhood at dawn with historic terraced houses and modern buildings intersected by curving streets and roundabouts, showcasing the vibrant residential and commercial architecture in a suburban area of London.

Would you like to see England full of beautiful buildings and beautiful places?


Why wouldn’t you?


Isn’t this what Americans call a “motherhood and apple pie” idea: who could be against that?


But the government’s obsession with its beauty agenda for architecture has a lot of people and organisations, including some Conservative-run councils, alarmed.


We’re going to examine what’s causing that concern, explain the design codes that are meant to be the instrument to make this all happen and break down what’s new and what’s not about the government’s proposals and what the “fast track for beauty” is.

What was The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission?

The first big step in the government’s beauty-in-architecture campaign was setting up the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission in 2018.


The commission’s task was:


“to tackle the challenge of poor quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent.”


That doesn’t seem to be an outrageous idea. However, the membership of the Commission had some people worried, especially the co-chairs: right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith from the pressure group Create Streets, both of whom seemed to feel that almost everything about modern cities was a mistake.


There was a suspicion that a very narrow definition of what a beautiful building should be was going to emerge, one that believes that architecture was perfected around 1780 by men inspired by ancient Greece and Rome and most of what has been built since is regrettable.

Open brochure titled 'Living with Beauty' on a reflective surface, featuring images of urban architecture, promoting health, well-being, and sustainable growth, with a detailed circle diagram explaining eight properties for reform on the right page, set against a deep blue background.
'Living with Beauty' report proposing a new development and planning framework to ask for beauty, refuse ugliness and promote stewardship.

The fast track for beauty?

If all this had just been about a report trying to gently steer the design trends in the country in a certain direction, it would have been easy to ignore.


How many words are produced by high-minded commissions every year, and how much effect do they have on everyday life?


Hundreds of thousands and very little, most people would say. But the government had a very specific purpose for its beauty agenda. You might think that to end “poor quality design and build”, you would be asking developers to take more care and add more thought to what they are doing. But a key part of the government’s ambitions for reforming the planning system, outlined in the white paper Planning for the Future, is a “fast track for beauty”.


This, broadly, is how it would work: in each area of the country, we will get together and agree on what we think the key elements of the local design style should be. Once our new design code is in place, anyone who puts in a planning application follows those guidelines will get a quick and easy path through the planning process.


New Forest in Hampshire has a Conservative-controlled council with its headquarters in a village of 3,000 people. It would seem to represent the England of traditional-style houses that the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s report Living With Beauty seems to dream of.

And yet, in its response to the Planning for the Future white paper consultation in autumn 2020, New Forest District Council responded to the question “Do you agree with our proposals for implementing a fast-track for beauty?”, with:


“No – this proposal is fraught with difficulties. How can 'beauty' be judged in any meaningful way? How can 'beauty' be defined? 'Beauty' and 'Sustainability' are not the same thing. Just because a building looks beautiful (whatever that means) does not mean that it is issue free in terms of all the other matters the planning system needs to address.”


So let’s take a closer look and explain…

Open book displaying a page from 'Living with Beauty' report with text discussing policy propositions on form-based codes and a colorful graphic illustrating community land use, set against a light grey background.

The National Model Design Code

Beauty…


Is it in the eye of the beholder? Or is it something more objective that we all recognise?


“How can beauty in architecture and design be defined?” seems to be the central question here.


You might feel it is the kind of question that is better left to philosophers than civil servants. (Maybe that’s why the government chose a philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, to head up the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission).


The government, though, thinks that they have a practical answer to that. We will know what beautiful buildings are because the rules will be set out in the new design codes. These are meant to be agreed locally, democratically, but they will take their lead from the National Model Design Code, which is currently being consulted on.


Here’s the curious thing, though: although the words “beauty” and “beautiful” appear 21 times in the announcement about the National Model Design Code (NMDC) consultation from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, when you actually read the draft Design Code itself, “beauty” doesn’t appear at all and “beautiful” only twice.

In fact, if you separate it out from the government’s bigger plans for the planning system and the statements made by government ministers about architecture, the NMDC doesn’t seem to be either radical or new. Indeed, for anyone who has studied urban design, it’s all very basic stuff about the best way to lay out streets and buildings. Its advice is mostly fairly uncontentious:


“The identity of an area comes not just from its built form and public spaces but from the design of its buildings. This is not about architectural style, but about key principles of building design.”


It also tells us that: “Well-designed homes and buildings are functional, accessible and sustainable” and that “Well-designed places should be accessible and easy to move around”.


Chances are, shown one of the new local design codes put together using the NMDC and the existing design guides many councils have, most people couldn’t tell the difference.

Aerial view of a dense residential area in London, showcasing rows of terraced houses with uniform design and gabled roofs, interspersed with trees and a few commercial properties, on a sunny day.

The case against design codes

Let’s say, though, that councils follow the spirit of the government’s plans rather than the sober NMDC when they put together their own design codes. What would be the dangers of using design codes focused on delivering beautiful buildings?

  • Beauty is a challenging concept to define and justify as part of a design it is subjective and beauty will mean different things in different contexts – the generation of a local design code will have its challenges and may not necessarily reflect what the local communities really want from future design. A coherent idea of what beauty is in building design will be hard to pin down.
  • Will design codes be too restrictive and result in prescriptive definitions of beautiful design?
  • It’s far from clear how the design codes will be translated into planning policy, with questions about how effective these codes will be – and how strict councils will be in enforcing them.
  • There are huge questions about local involvement in planning: is it reflective of the majority or simply those who have the time to dedicate to get involved with consultations – this goes to the core of issues related to community involvement in planning. People who have a vested interest in planning tend to be quite conservative and might have a preconceived idea of what beauty is for them – but will this reflect what most people think and visualise for future development? In Planning for the Future there seems to be a faith that somehow the decades-long problem of the lack of public engagement with local government can be wished away.
  • Local planning authorities will have to think carefully about the way that they engage their local community and how they will maximise input into the local design codes – only this way will they be fully effective. How will local councils ensure that there has been effective input from a representative sample of the local community?
  • There is an argument that this will encourage architects and planners to be more ambitious – however, could it limit the creative potential and limit the boundaries on architectural innovation?
  • What is at the core of beautiful design? And can this all be condensed down into a single document or a couple of policies embedded within a local plan?
  • Design codes may limit the diversity we now see across our built environment – design may become too generic and we may start to see unique towns and villages losing their element of uniqueness.
Female architect presenting urban development plans with a coffee mug in hand, gesturing towards project images and blueprints pinned on the wall, with architectural models on the table, in a bright office setting.

The case for design codes

The fact that design codes will be deeply embedded into the planning system and local plans will be welcomed by many. That is because:

  • The current system does not have a strong history of consistently delivering high quality, beautiful development that reflects the local character of its immediate surroundings.
  • Design codes will be proactive in helping to deliver schemes, developments and places that are both beautiful and are context-specific.
  • Design codes can be considered an experiment – however, they are actively working towards achieving a stronger, more resilient built environment.
  • Codes can secure and ensure the basics of good and attractive design are included in planning policy. They will be able to set some clear criteria as to what can be achieved in the ever-changing urban fabric.
  • Design codes can prevent poorly considered and designed development from getting through the system and eroding local distinctive character.
  • They could ensure that developers, who may not be as invested in the local character and ‘placemaking’ as the local communities themselves, take that extra level of care to design schemes that will complement the local area.
  • If the correct inputs are made and reflect the opinions and perspectives of a representative sample of the local community then they can be a great way of capturing and expressing local community values and aspirations for the design of the built environment.

So what’s the problem?

We don’t think there is anything terribly wrong with the idea of design codes – although nor is there anything new or different. And we agree with the terms of reference that were set for the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission – too many places have been poorly designed and shoddily built in this country.


There are three problems that we see.


The first is to do with that “fast track for beauty” – this seems to be a policy almost guaranteed to produce the opposite of good architectural design.


Rather than developers working with architects to create buildings and neighbourhoods that respond thoughtfully to their settings and planning departments judging those proposals carefully, the “fast track” will encourage builders to bung together a standard set of local elements – say, red brick, hipped roofs with dormers, prominent porches – and planners will be obliged to wave these applications through no matter how mediocre they are.


Secondly, applied too rigidly, these codes could harm the government’s other priorities. For instance, making the best use of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis. One of our favourite projects of last year was this one:

Modern eco-friendly housing development with green living roofs and vertical gardens on exterior walls, featuring a woman walking and a person parking a red car, promoting sustainable urban residential design.
New build housing development by Urbanist Architecture.

We created an architectural design concept that responded entirely to the weirdly shaped plot and turned its constraints into virtues. If you had tried to fit conventional rectangular buildings onto that site, you wouldn’t have got very far.


Meanwhile, although the government’s design guru Nicholas Boys Smith believes that the traditional London townhouse is an unbeatable classic, those homes are not suited to every situation. For instance, anyone who has to care for an elderly, mobility-impaired relative in a narrow (but certainly beautiful) Georgian house knows how far they are from matching contemporary standards of accessibility and all-age living.


Likewise, although sustainable technology can certainly be used in traditional-looking buildings, greater design freedom increases the possibility of designing zero-carbon buildings affordably.


And the hatred of the architecture of the postwar era espoused by some in the government might prevent the thoughtful reuse of these buildings, which is often the most environmentally helpful option, as advocated by The Architecture’s Journal’s RetroFirst campaign and backed by RIBA.

Trumpian visions and 1980s mediocrity

Finally, although however restrained the National Model Design Code seems to be, there have been statements from ministers that are a little more alarming. For instance, in 2018 then housing minister Kit Malthouse put out a tweet comparing a courthouse in Alabama and a building in Hyde Park.


He wrote, “Both built in the last 10 years. One will stand for centuries, one won't. Our new “Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission” will help us…”


A couple of thoughts: neoclassical buildings have a particular place in the history of the southern United States and it’s not one that should be celebrated. Secondly, Donald Trump insisted on neoclassical as the only style that could be used for new federal buildings – the new Biden administration swiftly consigned this edict to the dustbin of history.


But for anyone old enough to remember the late 1980s in the wealthier parts of the UK, it’s not public buildings with a totalitarian aura that you might be fearing. It’s the return of faux-Georgian mansions and mews, usually gated, that far from reviving the glorious tradition of the originals, mocked it with their clumsy design and shoddy workmanship.


Let’s respect our great buildings by not making bad copies of them.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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