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It’s not just the Government’s new housing design tsar, Sir Roger Scruton, who is in trouble. The Government at the weekend announced a new “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission looking into how building more attractive homes could tackle the housing shortage in cities by reducing opposition to new developments. But, although there are some lessons we can learn from our old, dense housing in cities built before cars, trying to force houses to adopt a certain style will neither convince Nimbys nor increase the supply of land in expensive cities.
The new commission involving Homes England, the House Builders Federation, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England draws heavily on a report from Policy Exchange by Sir Roger. This report argues, on the basis of online polls and focus groups, that traditional architecture is both more beautiful and more popular than contemporary design. Therefore, if developers built houses that look like Georgian terraces and Victorian red brick instead of mid/high-rises in the ‘new London vernacular’, support could be won for new, high-density developments, boosting the supply of housing in cities where it is in short supply.
This is an interesting idea – nobody, not even the most contrarian architect, would say they want ugly housing. And certainly, some of our most desirable, historic neighbourhoods have surprisingly high housing densities. The affluent area of Maida Vale in London is the most densely populated square kilometre in the UK, characterised by Victorian and Edwardian mansion flats. More places with housing as dense as that in Maida Vale in UK cities would supply more homes and probably be aesthetically popular.
One thing Maida Vale has very little of is car parking, being built in a traditional, high-density style around a Tube line before the invention of cars. Some new developments today are slathering parking onto new homes, trapping people into car dependency, when it is crucial for reducing congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions that we minimise journeys and commutes by car. But little or no parking for homes in a high-density neighbourhood with good public transport benefits the urban form tremendously, as it means valuable city centre land can be used by people, rather than stationary cars. Less land for cars encourages walking, cycling, and public transport use in cities, and as Maida Vale shows, it’s popular too.
But in practice, there are some challenges with the belief that the Government can “advocate for beauty in the built environment”. After all, not everybody agrees what “beauty” means – one Englishman’s castle will be another’s brutalist eyesore. The Government should avoid setting strict rules about what new homes can and cannot look like or it risks reducing choice. Jolly jumbles of jam-packed houses of all different sizes and styles are a sign of a housing supply that is responding to people’s distinct and unique needs.
But the other extreme, of giving too much power to ultra-local anti-housing activists – Nimbys –should be avoided too. They may claim to oppose ugly buildings, but in practice, many of the complaints are about amenities – traffic, parking, and increased use of public services – or house prices. Opposition to new housing is often opposition to sharing their neighbourhood with new neighbours, not the new houses themselves.
That means it is highly unlikely that strict design codes set at the local level will please them, and if the Government isn’t careful there is even a risk of these new standards of beauty becoming another tool for those who oppose development.
Empowering anti-housing activists in the name of traditional architecture may even end up undermining the principles that make the urban form of neighbourhoods like Maida Vale desirable. As so many objections to planning application focus on a perceived lack of parking, Nimbys risk oversupplying parking in new housing in cities, when the lack of parking is crucial to the appeal of some of our more traditional housing in cities.
Finding a balance between imposing so many rules that building homes is difficult and setting weak rules that result in people living in dangerous and poor quality housing is tricky. There is a role for the Government in ensuring that new homes are safe, healthy, and built to a good standard. But the Government should not be deciding whether certain styles are in good taste, and that others are not.
If high-demand cities do overcome their housing shortage and build many more homes, no doubt some buildings I personally think are ugly will be built. But that’s a small price to pay for lower housing costs and more people being able to reside in the cities where they want to live, work and raise their families.