3 April 2023

A policy that’s popular, sustainable and life-changing? Building beautiful homes


Three years ago – a lifetime away – the Building Better Beautiful Commission, which I co-chaired alongside the late Sir Roger Scruton, presented our findings to a packed audience beside Lambeth Palace. When we had begun our labours 12 months previously, many had asserted that our task was without purpose and our aims without merit. However, our proposals were greeted with near-universal support. One architect wrote, ‘I’m finding myself agreeing with almost everything, which is a surprise’. The chair of the Academy of Urbanism called it ‘an unexpected joy’. From controversy, consent? E pluribus unum

What had happened was that calmly, reasonably and, I hope, empirically, the Commission had reviewed the quality, popularity and sustainability of the places we create in England and had found them clearly wanting. People who wrote in to us said so. Focus groups around the country said so. Pricing and behavioural analysis said so. And, frankly, most of the professionals we spoke to said so. 

As the pandemic broke out a few months later, government and local councils started to take our recommendations on board. Major themes included the need to re-green our streets and squares (‘an apple tree for every home’) and to rejuvenate our streets’ vitality as places to dwell – not just roads to rush through. During the crisis, the then Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick MP, wisely relaxed regulations on street dining and supported the planting of more street trees, following the firm evidence that they are associated with fewer accidents, greater health, more walking and cleaner air. 

Consequently, in January 2021, the Government followed the Commission’s recommendations and published the National Model Design Code, a superb document. It should guide neighbourhood fora, councils and developers to create new places and to steward existing ones to be popular, beautiful, happy and sustainable. 

Also in 2021, the Government changed the National Planning Policy Framework, the overarching document that sets planning policy across the country. It included many of our recommendations: to set beauty as an aim of the planning system, to demand enhanced biodiversity from every development and to strengthen councils’ ability to reject proposals which are ungainly or unsightly. 

What types of places should we be creating?

Let me say this unambiguously. We must dare to ask communities what they like and how they wish to live. We need to keep it simple and make use of the exciting possibilities for digital engagement. We should aim to create the conservation areas of the future. 

Development can be the cause of ugliness. But it can also be the cure. We must combine the best of the old with the new: fast wifi but safe cycling; beautifully textured streets that look as if they have always been there, overshadowed by the oak trees that really have. 

Twenty years ago, the late architect Lord Rogers proposed an urban renaissance. His task force argued that Britain’s towns should be better places. His argument was not without merit. It led to many important improvements, in cities like London and Manchester. 

But it was not flawless. Some subsequent development visions made a naively unnuanced argument that high density development is the future and the answer to all our housing needs. The broad mass of the British people rejected this vision. Like the vast majority of people in all countries, they seek the joys of the garden suburb: the place to call your own, the places ‘which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, […] the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea,”‘ as George Orwell fortuitously put it. Even pre-Covid, the most popular form of home in this country, as nearly everywhere, is the private house. People want space. 

But this very understandable desire is not without consequences. Sprawling suburbs need a lot more countryside to build upon. That is, to put it mildly, not always very popular with the people who live there already. Nor, in its most elongated variant, is it very good for residents. In multiple surveys, sub-suburbs are associated with knowing fewer neighbours and with less active, less healthy lifestyles. Nor are homes which rely upon miles of new roads to get anywhere the affordable, sustainable future to which we aspire. 

We must find a middle way between the extremes of lumpish blocks crammed into a small urban site on the one hand and low-density sub-suburbs on the other. 

Fortunately, there is an answer that often works: gentle density, a network of beautiful streets and squares, of mansion blocks and terraced and semi-detached houses anchored around real middles, a village green or a local corner-shop; tree-lined avenues, streets that children can safely walk along, beautiful houses that cherish and evolve the local vernacular and nestle thoughtfully in the landscape. Blocks with clear backs and fronts that are associated with lower crime and better use of ‘little and often’ green spaces. Such places tend to be more popular, and more prosperous. No one ever complained that a town had too many squares.

People respond more warmly, innately and organically to streets that have coherent complexity, colour and texture, and whose forms and features invite you to walk or mimic, however imperceptibly, some of the patterns of nature. 

Gentle density expansion and intensification is also part of the answer to ‘levelling up’, fixing the scars in too many of our towns. The digital revolution can make the towns left behind by industrialisation viable economic centres once again. Making use of existing infrastructure, not just pouring houses into a field. 

Some inspired landowners, developers and community groups are already delivering this model. The King, when he was the Prince of Wales, is the best known. But he is not alone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation at Derwenthorpe, the Bourne Estate in London, Look! St Albans, the Homebaked CLT, Marmalade Lane in Cambridge: all are playing their part. 

Often such places are created with profound levels of neighbourly involvement or even community leadership. This is no coincidence. Done well, greater planning certainty through visual design codes, as the Office for Place will be supporting, would re-balance the scale in favour of the gentle infill, the self-build, the custom-build, the SME, the homeowner and the innovative entrepreneur. 

The places of the future will not be the same as the places of the past. But they will rhyme. We can do some things far more cheaply now thanks to the exciting possibilities of modular building. But other things are harder. What was two-a-penny a hundred years ago (a delicate string course, some gently patterned bricks) is now the preserve of the wealthy. That is something to fix. 

Places of the future should more confidently integrate trees and plants into the town than used to be the case, preserving hedgerows or green corridors running through new settlements and creating allotments. Again, provably popular and good for us. The natural kingdom has a place in the urban realm. 

To create places like this is also something we can agree on and is truly sustainable. The types of places that people find homely, safe and beautiful are, all the polls and pricing data tell us, fairly consistent by age, sex, wealth, race, region and politics. 

The types of place we live in, knowing your neighbour, feeling at home in the world and knowing that your children can move safely around the neighbourhood are not partisan passions. We can all agree on this. Fast roads, bad air, overlarge buildings and featureless façades are not the settled preference of the British people. This is why you rarely see them in the most expensive neighbourhoods.

Creating beautiful places is also to build sustainably. Ugly buildings rarely outlive their primary use. But beautiful buildings transcend their first transitory purpose and sail on into the future: the Edwardian power plant turned into a café, the mediaeval barn turned into an art gallery, the ground floor of a terraced home turned into a shop and then perhaps an office and now a home again. 

Resilient and successful places flex their uses easily over the centuries. And in doing so their whole life carbon costs collapse. Constructing a new-build two-bedroom house uses the equivalent of 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Refurbishment uses eight tonnes. Even with the highest energy-efficient specification, the new build would take over 100 years to catch-up. 

We used not to be afraid of the concept of beauty. The great Octavia Hill wrote that ‘we all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls’ and she sought to provide it in the homes she provided for working people. We now need to reinvigorate the living tradition of place-making.

This does not necessarily mean creating a house that looks as if it was built in 1820. Though do so if you wish. But it does mean understanding the qualities of street, of building, of height and of façade that make places popular and homely. We all need our home – our place – as we make our way through the world. 

This article first appeared in Bright Blue’s latest essay collection, ‘Home advantage: a centre-right vision for housing

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Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director of Create Streets and the Chair of the Government’s Office for Place. He co-chaired the Building Better Beautiful Commission.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.