After a bumpy start but ahead of schedule, the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (or the “BBBBC”) this week published its Interim Report. Set up by the government in November 2018, the BBBBC has been tasked with “[tackling] the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places” and finding a way of ensuring that “as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent”. The Interim Report is fascinating reading for those with a passion for place. Identifying eight priorities for reform, the Commission has defined its remit as beyond that of merely raising the standard of design in buildings themselves, instead interpreting “beauty” as “Beauty at three scales” – “beautiful buildings”, “beautiful places”, “beautifully placed”. The report itself and the speed of its publication demonstrates the Commission’s concern for both the importance to society of the built environment and the current threats to it. The report makes no bones about the fact that new development should be “as good as, indeed better, than the old” when “At present, too many [communities] are worse”.

Beauty at three scales” and net harm v net gain

The interim report notes that “building homes alone is never the answer, unless we are building places as well”, such that “the aim of future planning and development should be place-making, remodelling existing settlements and delivering enough, good settlements in the right places …that support choice, economic growth and progress, sustainability and healthy lifestyles”. The Commission believes that in order to achieve this there must be a move towards an “assumption that everyday beauty is a controlling aim in all that we do”, which applies to development at all levels – individual buildings (beautiful buildings), the “spirit of place” (beautiful places) and sustainable settlement patterns (beautifully placed).

“Beauty” has therefore been defined in the widest possible sense, an holistic approach taking the understanding of “beauty” and “design” beyond visual appearance to another level. The impact of both on well-being and sustainability is recognised, with a call for the raising of standards and expectations across the board. Changes are anticipated not only to national policy and guidance but also to the planning system itself. Interestingly, the Commission notes that currently “we have a planning system that is designed to ensure no net harm – not to support net gain”. There is clear desire to embed a requirement for the latter.

Strengthening trust in the system

Noting the distrust that communities often have that development will have a positive impact or be delivered as promised, thought is given to what is needed to achieve public support for new development – the report argues that “we need to change things in such a way that the argument for beauty … is used from the very earliest moment to shape development, not to prevent it”. In an echo of national policy’s drive towards consideration of viability issues at the plan-making rather than the planning application stage, the report calls for greater involvement of the public in local plan making, to move away from what can feel to communities like an adversarial approach at the development consent stage. The report also calls for a more “rules based” approach, so that there is certainty both as to what development can be expected and what it can be expected to provide – the Commission’s attitude is that we should not be asking whether land use and urban form should be regulated, but how. When considering current government favour towards permitted development rights, permissions in principle and local development orders, the report echoes the concerns raised by many expert bodies over the negative impact of such consents – that section (paragraph 10.10) is literally entitled “throwing the baby out with the bathwater?”

What next?

The report notes that, whilst several of the proposals already made could be implemented “quite easily”, the Commission has a lot more to do by way of research and consultation before publication of its final report which is due at the end of this year. After this work has been completed, it will be interesting to see to what extent the government of the day will pay attention to it. The interim report gives credit to the conclusions of other recent studies, including Sir Oliver Letwin’s Independent Review of Build Out Rates and the Raynsford Review, which so far seem to have been largely ignored by the government in its policy making. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this report should be welcome to all.