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Legal landscape: On beauty

The government has indicated that ‘beauty’ will become a formal requirement for new development. Simon Ricketts highlights some flaws in the plan

I hope it doesn’t take a lawyer to point out the potential tension between the government’s current measures to deregulate the planning system and the prime minister’s assurance that “we” will “build a more beautiful Britain”.

At time of writing we were awaiting the government’s response to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s January 2020 report Living with Beauty. The response is going to have to be good, because I have some questions.

Why beauty? Homes can be created by way of a wider range of permitted development rights (PDR) without any control by the local planning authority as to minimum room sizes. The new “commercial, business and service” use class also brings unprecedented and welcome flexibility. These are fundamental changes. And yet ‘beauty’ is to be put on a pedestal – no matter about sustainability, the living conditions of those within the building or of those in an area dependent on a range of services. One might assume that the government’s main concern beyond whether the particular change delivers on the numbers – homes, jobs – is “What does it look like from the outside?”

The PDR developer will require prior approval for “design” and “external appearance” but not for the size of rooms in the building.

Changes of use that may be utterly transformative of areas are achievable under the new class E, and yet minor external works to facilitate those changes will still require a full planning application! The greater the policy emphasis on ‘beauty’, the greater the discrepancy. Isn’t this upside-down thinking?

And whose beauty? The methodology for assessing beauty also needs better definition. In our planning world, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is in the eye of the decision-maker.

In brief...

  • In planning law, beauty is in the eye of the decision-maker– not in the eye of the beholder 
  • Beauty is inherent in the way a space functions 
  • Maintaining vernacular styles of building and building materials can nowadays be just an artifice

The NPPF already puts emphasis on achieving “well-designed places” and advises that planning permission should be refused for “poor design”. There is already subjectivity and principles of good design are embodied in local design standards.

Since October 2019 we have had MHCLG’s national design guide and await a national model design code. But the commission has recommended that policies should be ratcheted up, to refer to beauty, to require decision-makers to refuse proposals that are not well designed, to introduce a “fast track for beauty”.

“In our planning world, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is in the eye of the decision-maker”

The commission asserts that there is a “powerful consensus… concerning what people prize in the design of new developments, and about how beauty in human settlement is generally understood”, that what “beauty means” and “the local ‘spirit of place’ should be discovered and defined empirically”.

But we each ‘read’ a building in a different way. Some may just see a familiar form of architecture; others may see the underlying message of those who built it, perhaps to inspire awe and/or subjugation of the individual to an institution, in a way that nowadays would be regarded as wholly inappropriate.

Beauty is not about “spirit of place” – surely it is about how a space functions, within a particular society, and about emotions: comfort, nostalgia, aspiration, fear?

While the commission’s report is careful not to promote particular building styles, it rails against tall, “iconic” or “innovative” buildings in a way that is inherently conservative. It lavishes praise on local vernacular styles of building and building materials, when continued use of such styles and materials is nowadays just an artifice.Are these not some of the dangers of going beyond seeking to control “poor design” and of seeking to regulate to achieve “beauty”? I, too, want us to achieve a more beautiful Britain. But when it comes to what is ‘beautiful’, our tastes and emotional reactions may differ.   Simon Ricketts is a partner with Town Legal LLP. This piece reflects his personal views.

    Simon Ricketts is a partner with Town Legal LLP. This piece reflects his personal views. Simon comments routinely on planning law at https://simonicity.com

    Image credit | iStock


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