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Duncan Sim: Politicians must build beauty into housing policy

Duncan Sim
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Before the election, both the Conservatives and Labour focused on affordability and supply of housing, and rightly so.

Despite the most recent figures showing the highest level of new housing delivery since 2008, the UK is still failing to meet the more than 200,000 new homes we need annually.

But, with a new Parliament now elected to consider this issue among others, we must not fall into a reductive discussion of numbers alone. While this shortfall must be met, the debate must also consider design, local engagement, and beauty, alongside and indeed as integral to quantity.

As Sajid Javid has repeatedly said, the ugliness of proposed development can help to explain community opposition and reduced housebuilding rates. His ambition for greater community influence over developments’ appearance echoes ResPublica’s recent work on beauty and local participation in planning.

Our research has demonstrated community access to beauty is associated with better outcomes on wellbeing, crime, and civic pride. Previous research also shows three-quarters of people would support more homes being built locally if well-designed and consistent with local character.

Allowing communities to shape the evolution of their area – its housing stock, wider public realm, and infrastructure – with their idea of beauty in mind will help to realise such benefits.

Yet while recognising the beauty’s potential as a policy tool, more tangibly, politicians should also acknowledge people’s basic desire to live in a beautiful place. Ipsos Mori has found that 81% of the public believe everyone should be able to experience beauty regularly, so it is puzzling and regrettable that beauty is not a more crucial feature of the debate.

Moreover, our research found access to beauty is unequally distributed across the country by both geography and household income. The new government must recognise this as another social injustice to be tackled in addressing the multifaceted presentation of inequality.

It is therefore disappointing that no major party has yet put forward a vision for protecting and enhancing the beauty of neighbourhoods across the UK as part of its offer to the electorate.

The Conservative manifesto acknowledged the failure to deliver the “infrastructure, parks, [and] quality of design” that make communities sustainable, while Labour promised to “properly resource planning authorities … to put people and communities at the heart of planning”.

But neither made the critically important case that improving an area’s visual appeal is critical to building healthier, more prosperous communities, and that too many people find themselves shut out from the opportunity to live in an area the beauty of which adds value to their lives.

Beauty is an issue politicians are reticent to address, perhaps for fear of being seen as “out of touch” or not focused on the “big issues”. This reticence must change. We call on newly-elected MPs to make the case that the beauty of our housing and broader public realm is important too – not just the numbers delivered.

Duncan Sim, senior policy and projects officer, ResPublica

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