A commentary on the government’s sudden interest in good house design
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The politics of Hungary and allegations of Islamophobia rarely impinge on discussion of good housing design.
But they have led to the sacking of Sir Roger Scruton as chair of the government’s curiously-named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
Sir Roger’s views on Jews in Hungary and Muslims in general need not detain us - though they led communities secretary James Brokenshire to fire him less than six months after his appointment.
The commission’s creation in the first place was however of some significance. It is a sign - eight years after the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment vanished into the Design Council, ’an independent charity and the government’s advisor on design’ - that the government has decided it should after all promote good design in buildings - mainly though not exclusively homes.
This is not the only sign. Homes England, formerly the Homes & Communities Agency, intends to make compliance with the 12 ‘Building for Life’ criteria a condition of housebuilders getting their hands on its land, money or both for their projects.
Depending on the type of development, criteria include whether a development creates ’well defined streets and spaces’, works with the site and its context, includes external storage and amenity space, has good public transport and contributes to local housing requirements.
Other criteria related to ‘character’ are soon to be added. While the whole exercise is obviously somewhat subjective it is driven by Homes England – and behind it the government – being concerned about both the quantity and quality of new homes built.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the government really does get to 300,000 new homes a year.
It does not want to be held responsible for the modern equivalent of crumbling 1960s slab blocks, all too many of which proved to be damp, defective or – in the case of the collapsed Ronan Point – constructed with newspaper in lieu of cement.
Mr Brokenshire has set the commission three aims: to promote better design of homes, villages, towns and high streets; to explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent; and to make the planning system “work in support of better design and style, not against it”.
It is therefore not just about historical reputation. The government wants its new homes, thinks new settlements are a good way to get them and that public resistance will be lessened if these at least look decent.
Planners will surely though take exception to the insinuation that they oppose good design. If they reject a developer’s application because it looks hideous, they face heavy legal costs if the council then loses an appeal before the unpredictable Planning Inspectorate.
Mr Brokenshire has not said if his enthusiasm for good design has been communicated to his inspectors.
Mark Smulian, contributor