Why is Beauty such an ugly word?

Well you would think that Beauty was an ugly word given the sniggering  and ridicule that met Planning Minister Nic Boles’s comments this week that we could and should do better when it comes to the quality of our housing design. He quite rightly derided much newly built housing as “Pig Ugly”. When you think that any new housing will have to last hundreds of years, then such demoralising additions to our built form will denude our collective quality of life for generations to come.

Any real debate about the quality of housing design was quickly overtaken by the polarised debate about whether / where any new housing should be built. The fact that we continually build 100,000 fewer homes  than is needed year in, year out; means that we need to crack the problem. We’re not going to be able to develop the numbers we need in the current NIMBY dominated, aspic- drenching climate. ( But that’s another debate).  

You see, I’m at it as well, moving away from the design point.

As someone who has spent all their working life in the affordable housing sector and with a lifelong interest in design and architecture, I could hardly believe that two of my passions would come together with such conviction and  eloquence from the mouth of a minister. Ministers don’t do “design” do they? When was the last time a minister spoke convincingly about aesthetics, let alone applying it to housing.So good on “Bold Boles” for daring to do so.

And he’s quite right to do so. In the North West, the vast majority of newbuild speculative housing is dull, bland, “anywhere” type  housing with no sense of place and often lacking in any local vernacular.Whilst the odd high-profile Housing Association scheme may buck this trend, regrettably it applies to many in our sector too.This is in part due to Planning Control teams in Local Authorities setting the bar too low; perhaps that’s something that Nick Boles may want to address. We have schemes brought to us by developers under S106 agreements where we’re underwhelmed by the design quality. Our room for manoeuvre is often curtailed by the developer having already got the nod from the planners that they’re willing to approve, as is.

But it needn’t be like this. I’m a frequent visitor to Cornwall and it strikes me as I travel around the county, that the benchmark quality of housing design; whether affordable or speculative is so much higher than elsewhere. There is more use of local materials, with often a more ambitious contemporary approach, to design, with less priority given to the car; which together  create a sense of place.

“Good design costs too much” goes the cry, but does it really? It demands more thought, care, imagination and flare certainly, but these shouldn’t add too much to the bottom line.After all Cornwall isn’t an affluent county away from the tourist hotspots, so if it can be achieved here, why not throughout the land.  

The quality of design, its impact on the look, feel, attractiveness and sustainability of our towns has been a subject that has gone off the boil in recent years, not least due to the demise of CABE (the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment). So Nick Boles gets my vote on this issue and as Planning Minister, he is uniquely placed to do something about it.But he’ll need nerves of steel to withstand the bleats that will come his way from those No 10 lobbying frequenters; the housebuilders.

Cornish affordable housing photo

An Affordable housing Scheme at Camelford Cornwall; par for the course in the county. More beautiful than Pig Ugly I’d suggest.

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