Blog Post

Building better, beautiful places in London

Last week the government-sponsored Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBB) published its final report, Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth – the latest in a venerable series of reviews aimed at strengthening the way we plan, develop, design and run our built environment.

I have some personal interest in this. My father, Richard Rogers, was chair of the Urban Task Force, a forerunner of the BBBB, set up by the Blair government, and focused mainly on cities. As a civil servant in the Cabinet Office in the Brown government, I was in charge of a cross-Departmental review, on ‘quality of place’. Shortly after I led a project on public attitudes to beauty and architecture for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment – though both projects got lost in the midst of the 2008-9 financial crisis and the transition from the Brown to the Cameron premiership. And, of course, the built environment is at the centre of the concerns of Centre for London’s – the think tank I lead. We are proud to be one of the Mayor of London’s Design Advocate organisations.

So what does the new commission add to the mix?

The report makes 5 broad arguments.

The planning and development of the build environment are much more important than national and local government and most developers recognise.

Well-planned, designed and managed places are not just ‘nicer’. If many of our towns and cities struggle to attract talent and investment, if we are battling to reverse climate change and habitat decline, if we are growing lonelier and less healthy, this is in large part because we have done a poor job of creating and maintaining successful places.

This is a radical report. Should our politicians take it seriously it would have profound implications for the running of the country, with less funding, for instance, needed for nationally administered health and social services and more going into designing and sustaining places.

We need to put beauty at the centre of our planning system.

The ideal of beauty is not used much in modern architectural discourse, which tends to prize function, innovation and excitement over anything else. But the Commission believes that a greater focus on beauty will result in a deeper, more humane development, which would give more weight to the values that matter to people – and better able to manage and direct the various forces that too often work against creating attractive and successful places, including highway and health and safety bodies.

Above all, the Commission believes that a planning system that takes beauty seriously will be popular – that it could give the public more leverage in planning and shaping places and encourage a YIMBYist revolution in public attitudes to development (see 4 below). As the report states ‘‘The attractiveness, or otherwise, of [a scheme’s] proposals and plans should be an explicit topic for engagement, rather than being swept aside as of secondary importance’.  The report calls for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to be strengthened to include a duty of ‘visual enhancement’. Currently it merely says that ‘poorly designed schemes’ should be turned down, in effect allowing mediocre and run of the mill schemes through.

The report is careful not to identify beauty with traditional Prince-Charles style architecture (whatever the convictions of its two co-chairs, the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of Create Streets). And that is right.

A recent survey found that three quarters of recent housing developments in England were poor or all mediocre, but most new housing is built in a traditional style – detached or semi-detached brick homes with a pitched roof. Nevertheless the emphasis the BBBB report gives to beauty will be resisted by many on the cultural left, who will continue to worry that it is part of a reactionary project – even though they would probably be very sympathetic to a similar argument made, say, about the need for our politics to focus more on substantive ideals of justice or equality.

Our planning system needs to become more-rule governed, with detailed planning codes setting out a rigorous framework within which development can operate.

This country is unusual in the extent to which it takes a case-by-case approach to development, with a lot of discretion in the granting of planning permissions left to officials and politicians. The result is a very opaque, adversarial and reactive regime – and one which, in taking a case by case approach to buildings, ends up neglecting urban form. In other countries, much or most development occurs ‘as of right’.  Where a scheme confirms with the local planning framework developed by the planning authorities, it can proceed automatically, without officials, politicians or the public having much ability to stop it.

A more predictable planning system, the report argues, would have several benefits. It would push the planning system ‘upstream’ and encourage and enable planners to plan at the level of whole streets, neighbourhoods, towns and even cities, using design codes, in particular, to create places that hang together. It would remove some of the risk in development, so lowering the barriers to entry and widening the range of developers – people building their own home, small and medium sized developers, developer-architects, community groups and not-for-profits – able to operate in the market. (According the Commission the UK currently has one of the most concentrated development sectors in the world), This in term would lead to greater innovation, competition and a market that better responds to consumer and community preferences.

One idea, alluded to, but not really developed in the report, is that our planning system puts too much emphasis on use classes, and not enough on design and urban form. Currently most local plans say more about the purposes for which a development should be used rather than how it should be designed. The commission suggests that we should be encouraging development that is both so good and adaptable that it becomes a permanent fixture of a place – and that government should end the anomaly whereby new developments are exempted from VAT, while conversion of existing building is not. The West End is full of old buildings that respect urban form and have been converted over time from houses, to offices to flats and back to houses again.  But the emphasis on use-classes in our planning system does not encourage this sort of quality or flexibility. We could go further, as my colleague Richard Brown has argued, and make greater use of property taxes rather than use classes, in determining building use and creating the right mix of activities in a locality.

A move to a more rule-based planning system, which put beauty at its heart, would, foster new and much more constructive public engagement in the planning process.

In our current case-by-case system, the public mainly get engaged in opposing development – the recent Survey of Londoners found that ‘opposing a development in your local area’ was the most common form of civic engagement in London. But a more rules-based system would enable and encourage the public to get engaged in setting the local development framework, as they would have no power to stop ‘as of right’ development once the framework was in place. And, the commissioners believe, a planning system which put beauty at the centre of a more demanding planning and design framework would allow for a public discussion about things that the public really care about – history and build heritage, community, urban form, nature and architectural quality – all in a language the public can understand. The report argues that that a planning system that successfully engaged the public co-producing highly prescriptive would be a decline in Nimbyist sentiment – a major reason for our housing shortage.

Development goes best when developers takes a long-term stake in a place.

This will incentivise them to work alongside local communities and other landowners and build with sustainability, adaptability and resilience in mind.  There is lots of evidence that developers who take a long-term view make better returns than those that don’t.  And we have some outstanding models of what enlightened long-term investment in place looks like – not least in London’s great estates.  But the Commission identifies a range of perverse incentives in government policy and the tax system, which discourage longer term investment models, as well as recommendations for reform. These include proposals for an official ‘stewardship kitemark’, for developers and development partnerships with a good track record and the right skills and long-term approaches. These partnerships would be able to draw on preferential financing streams and favourable tax treatment.

I find this a very powerful set of arguments.

What would this mean for London?  A few observations below.

‘As of right’ vs case-by-case planning regime

The variety, density and all-round complexity of London’s built form and the uses made of it will always make creating a ‘by right’ frameworks for the capital a challenge. The context within which almost every development operates in London is unique, with historic buildings of different styles and different forms, variable street patterns, and variety of uses and tenures, and intense and often conflicting demands made on the public realm. In this context, you might argue that we will get the best results by taking a case by case approach, with a planning regime that works on the basis of guiding principles rather than strict rules.

In fact, rigid frameworks can have very perverse consequences, especially in a city with high land values and the potential for even higher gain – developers will always be looking for ways of manipulating the rules so as to maximise their winnings. The ‘pencil towers’ sprouting up across Manhattan illustrates the case. The city’s developers have worked out that various loopholes, including details of the city’s complex air rights regime, allows them to build exceptionally tall and slender buildings on some sites, in ways planners and the public never foresaw.

More generally, more prescriptive, rules-based planning regimes tend to treat the rules as providing a ‘floor’ – a set of basic standards that must be met. But they usually allow for developers who want to go above these minimum standards to negotiate a special package – more affordable housing or extra green space, in exchange, say, for extra height. But given the high costs and potentially big wins from developing in London, developers are especially eager to get as much from any project as they possibly can and are generally eager to go beyond the ‘floor’ in exchange for getting greater density. And so we are back into negotiated planning decisions. Again, New York is probably the best example. It is much easier to lay down a strict planning framework for New York, with its grid layout and relatively simple land use patterns, than it will be for London. But even so, much development in done ‘by exception’, rather than ‘as of right’.

Public Engagement

Londoners have a higher than average belief in their ability to affect local decisions, which appears to be a good basis on which to be developing a more participatory planning system. But how well-placed are the boroughs, the lowest level of local government in London, to lead in developing the more participatory and prescriptive planning frameworks the Commission wants? With an average population of around quarter of a million people, each borough is the size a medium sized UK city. More than half of them have a population larger than Newcastle. Is this the right level at which to be working with local public to co-produce detailed urban development frameworks? True, Neighbourhood Planning Forums could fill the gap. But these have are been slow to develop and many of those involved complain about feet dragging on the part of the authorities. Nine boroughs have no Neighbourhood Planning Forums at all.

And while most people care deeply about where they live and many are ready to get engaged in shaping these places, there are barriers to creating genuinely inclusive participatory planning processes. And this is especially true in a city like London, with high levels of churn, deprivation, inequality, and diversity. As recent Publica research highlighted the challenges that poorer London neighbourhoods found in developing a Neighbourhood Plan. Of course, me must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good – there are modest reforms which could make a difference. But it will take both a cultural shift and dedicated resources to achieve the participatory planning system in the way the Commission wants.

Public sector capacity

As the Commission concedes, government cuts have fallen heavily on planning departments and this is particularly true of London. Centre for London analysis suggests that the funding for planning departments has declined by more than half since 2010, with cuts falling particular heavily on boroughs with the most ambitious development programmes.

The Commission reasonably suggests that moving to a more pro-active system could save money by reducing resources spent on considering individual planning applications. And this is no doubt true. But the transition itself will take time and money – essentially councils will have to continue running the present system, while also establishing a new one. The change will also demand skills in developing masterplans and design codes, ecology and public engagement which are in short supply. Most boroughs struggle to fill quite basic planning roles, let alone these more expert and creative ones.

None of this is to say that the fundamental analysis and recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission are ill founded. Despite the pressures on borough planning departments, architects, planners and developers seem to agree that standards of planning and design are relatively high in London. The Commission cites the Mayor of London’s London Plan approvingly several times. While London’s complexity means that rule-type approaches will always play a limited role, they could have wide application in many parts of the city, including low-to-medium density terraced streets, outer London suburban residential streets and for larger brownfield sites.  About half of London’s new housing will be provided in London’s 39 Opportunity Areas, many of which are will be very comprehensively redeveloped. Despite only limited support from national government, and even less from the Mayor and the boroughs, Neighbourhood Planning Forums have gained momentum and the number is still growing, while the Mayor’s introduction of a residents ballot on plans for estates renewal, has strengthened public voice in the planning process, to apparently positive effect.

It will be interesting to see if The Commission report finds a powerful champion in government – so important in turning exercises like this into change in the real world.

I hope it does.


Ben Rogers is Director of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.