Making space for art – Making space for beauty

March 31, 2021

Creative Land Trust’s, Gordon Seabright discusses the importance of social and cultural beauty to our towns and cities.  

Planning for the Future, the government’s White Paper kicking off consultation about reform of the planning system in England, featured numerous references to the concept of beauty.  Alongside approving nods towards the 2019 Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission were calls for “a renewed focus on the beauty of new development”, and a pledge: “We intend to introduce a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation.” 

The suggested reforms overall represented something of a blunt instrument, proposing to increase the speed of planning decisions but creating new harms for our cities and towns.  Commentators have pointed to the unintended but predictable consequences of taking change of use decisions out of the hands of local planners, including the creation of residential deserts where people neither work nor play – dormitory estates and high streets.

In the midst of that debate, the White Paper’s repeated insistence on beauty has gone largely unexamined.  That may be no bad thing – there’s not much to be gained from another sterile debate about the subjectivity (or objectivity) of beauty, as Alain de Botton’s The School of Life collective and others trade opinions in a new and unproductive front in the culture wars. 

Perhaps we should look at beauty a different way.  Few members of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, I suspect, would regard the old industrial units and warehouses of, say, Hackney Wick as beautiful.  The street art aesthetic of urban environments like Haringey’s Warehouse District or Park Royal isn’t to everyone’s tastes.    

But what these places produce can be beautiful.  You can’t enjoy the pleasure of looking at, or even owning, the work of artists and makers if you don’t allow them workspace.  London’s rougher edges are home to the talented craftspeople and artists who generate the cultural beauty for which the city is renowned.  And that cultural beauty begets social beauty – communities where creativity is embedded, and where the expressions of that creativity may challenge traditional views of beauty but are absolutely essential to its continuation. 

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has put forward a White Paper that calls for “the creation of beautiful places”.  We hope the government is alive to the fact that cultural beauty and social beauty are every bit as important to the vibrancy and wellbeing of our towns and cities as the aesthetics of new buildings.  When legislation emerges from the consultation process, it could help to secure the future of the places that generate beauty, and the people who live and work in them.