Planning Matters: The eye of the beholder

April 02 2021
Planning Matters: The eye of the beholder

With Chris Gosling

THE emerging new agenda for planning has made good use of the slogan Build Back Better, but at the same time the word beauty has cropped up on a regular basis – often enough to signal that us planners are going to need new strings to our bows.

After years of having to be the arbiters of good design, it seems likely that a new type of judgement will be required of the next generation of planners – the appreciation and encouragement of beauty, to ensure that our built environment exhibits it.

Of course, just so everyone is sure of what is beautiful, design codes will need to be met.

The national version of the design code is being drawn up at the moment. Hopefully they will provide some clarification of what beauty is, otherwise it will remain in the eye of the beholder. Once again, the outcome for all of us will be determined by the quality, strength and clarity of policy. Somehow this challenge will also have to meet the simplification agenda.

I have written before about design codes, optimistically put forward as the shining path leading to all new development being of the quality of Bath and Edinburgh New Town.

While there is nothing at all wrong with aiming high, I can‘t help noting that Bath was built using local materials which were plentiful at that time, when labour was cheap and replaceable, while health and safety legislation was a mere pipe dream for the builders four storeys up.

At the same time, there were no planners for the master architects to appease and, as far as my knowledge of 18th century history goes, no public consultation either.

I think that these factors reduce the chance of a new Bath being built, but time will no doubt tell.

In the meantime, we need to come to terms with what is beautiful and what isn’t.

That is something perhaps more fitting for a fine art degree course, but until the courts come up with their interpretation, it is something that planners seem likely to have to wrestle with.

The concept is not entirely new in planning. After all, it is incumbent to consider the impact of development on the natural beauty of an area when dealing with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. That is a situation where the beauty is already defined as being all around the site. Someone else has defined it, and the assessment is of how development will affect it.

Building Back Beautiful is not so straightforward.

In much the same way as good design should fit its context, it can be said to be beautiful. But that is probably not quite enough in a situation where all new buildings seem likely to be rejected if they are not beautiful enough.

With such an abstract concept it is hard enough to even see the bar, let alone work out how high it has been set.

This is the sort of aesthetic argument that was first ushered in by the allowance in the National Planning Policy Framework for houses in isolated locations in the countryside (known as paragraph 79 houses).

This calls for design of exceptional quality that is truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture.

Now that is a high bar. There is a strong chance that the requirement for beauty will mean that something similar, requiring an equally hard to define judgement, will be expected of all development.