The Beauty Agenda
The ‘Beauty Agenda’ began in 2020 with a suite of documents, starting with Living With Beauty: the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and resulting in the introduction of a National Model Design Code (NMDC) which has now been piloted by several local authorities.
The essence of the Commission’s work is that ugliness of new developments has significant social impact; as opposed to beautiful surroundings and buildings which make people happier. It proposed a framework with three key goals – to create beauty, refuse ugliness and promote stewardship. The National Design Guide and NMDC which followed provided a toolkit for the production of local design codes, to be shaped by local authorities through engagement with the local community. The continued emphasis on the word beauty in each of these documents is the first time finally resulted in it finding its way into the National Planning Policy Framework.
With the first pilot programme of the NMDC having recently come to a close and local authorities reporting back on their experiences of implementing a Design Code, questions turn to whether and how the worthy objective of increasing ‘beauty’ in the built environment can be realised.
Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis, a fore-runner to the work of the Commission, used extensive polling to demonstrate that in the design of new homes, traditional building design was much preferred over contemporary architecture. Across all demographics, a large majority agreed that newly built properties should fit in with their surroundings. Support was used to substantiate the claim that NIMBYism can be overcome if design better reflects people’s desire for traditional architecture.
This was an eye-opening revelation for the architecture profession. Nevertheless it was widely recognised as having the potential to change the perception of newbuilds across the country and thereby resolve the housing crisis.
Having established that, along with the need to promote distinctiveness, the importance of local authority and site-specific design codes cannot be underestimated. If implemented as stated in the NMDC, local design codes must reflect the local vernacular. We are a nation of nations and links to the past, our geography, landscape and locational context remain an important part of our cultural heritage.
As the first pilot local authorities found, a first hurdle was ensuring that residents had a full understanding of what a Design Code was. As an intangible document – one which does not relate to a specific development or location – the concept can be difficult to communicate, let alone consult on. Accordingly many local authorities have opted to begin the process by consulting upon methods of consultation – giving local residents the opportunity to determine whether they prefer to communicate through workshops, exhibitions, online or through other means. The local authorities also struggled to find a way of engaging people on the more esoteric, conceptual questions that concern place-making ensuring that it’s a positive and progressive dialogue.
Invariably many have found resourcing to be one of the most significant challenges. Not only do planning teams at local authorities lack the time, but they also lack design skills and knowledge and accordingly much of the work is being outsourced.
A second round of pilot projects included not only local planning authorities but also designated neighbourhood planning groups such as neighbourhood forums and parish councils. This introduces a further complication: the design aspirations of a rural parish council can conflict with the intentions of largely urban local authority, and yet when working with approved Design Codes, development teams are expected to take both views into account.
Ultimately the simplest solution that is to create a ‘one size fits all’ document: one which addresses universal concerns such as climate change and biodiversity but refrains from being too specific about variation in character or building design. But will this homogeneity led approach deliver good design? Prior to Design Codes, supplementary design guides for specific areas within a Borough or District would provide design guidance for planning applications. However with the rush for every planning authority to write a universally malleable Design Code for their entire administrative area, one may think that distinctiveness in our villages, towns, suburbs may get eroded and eventually lost.
‘Say no to ugliness’, was the message to local authorities from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But this does not rest with local authority officers alone, rather on many thousands of people involved in developing the Design Codes. With good intentions, the results could be transformational. But good intentions must prevail – this process cannot be used to stop progression, innovation and used as a poison pill to stop new developments. Local Design Code must not become a NIMBY Charter and their potential to end identikit architecture must be realised.