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.