Bring local residents into the planning process

People want their neighbourhoods to feel like home and must be consulted

June 26, 2018
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It is accepted on all sides that we are not building enough houses to meet the needs of a growing population. Attempts to build new homes meet with mixed success, but it is not fair to characterise opposition to new building as simply “nimbyism.”

People want “beauty in their back yard” because beauty is a symbol of home. Aesthetic harmony is the sine qua non of settlement, and the only firm requirement that must be fulfilled, if people are to live happily with the others whose property they overlook. The search for beauty and the building of community are therefore two aspects of a single process.

Nor is beauty a prerogative of the affluent classes. Aesthetic standards are just as important for social housing and the mixed estates in which private owners, council tenants and tenants of housing associations live side by side—if anything more important, since many residents on the big estates are unable to choose to live in different surroundings.

In a poll of over 5,000 people conducted for a new report by the think tank Policy Exchange, there is a clear consensus; respondents agreed that we need more homes, but they want them to fit in with the existing environment. People want new developments to be a somewhere, not a nowhere, and a somewhere which could also be a home.

In most places people prefer dwellings aligned along streets to blocks scattered in open spaces, prefer traditional design in which elements are organised vertically to the “horizontal vernacular,” and in general like a serene and walkable neighbourhood with friendly facades on a shared public street. Traditional Georgian and Victorian terraces are most popular; smaller modern houses which focus groups described as “boxy” are as unpopular as “adventurous” modern skyscrapers.

Not surprisingly, such neighbourhoods possess added economic value too. People like green spaces, and also areas where small shops, schools and other amenities can coexist without the blight of heavy traffic. The polling reveals a belief that better quality buildings and public space make people happier, communities stronger and crime less likely.

If popular resistance to development is to be overcome, then we must build according to standards that the public perceives to be aesthetically acceptable and involve those who have to live with them in the planning process. It is also necessary to bring the important stakeholders—architects and developers, local councillors, planning officers and local residents—together before the vital decisions are made, and before mistakes can no longer be corrected.

It is therefore of urgent importance to respond to the emerging consensus about planning and housing, as detailed in the report. Not only should we take note of what people want, we should find ways to involve ordinary people more centrally in the decision-making process.

Some will say that, if we are to place architectural beauty at the heart of planning, then we should give architects a fundamental role in designing the product. But architects have a professional interest in furthering the choices of their clients, and the focus groups showed that they may also be reluctant to build in ways that go against their professional formation. Although their opinions are to be valued, they are not definitive.

What matters far more is the opinions of the general public, and in particular of those whose environment and amenities will be directly affected by the development. We need a way of involving the public in shaping their environment, which will make due allowance for the fact that the people most affected by a plan are likely to be too busy to spend more than a few evenings on giving their views, and will need guidance—in the form of comparisons, templates and examples—in order to make up their mind. If local planning authorities were to consult residents to inform a specific design and style guide, and definitions of sustainable development recognised public will on matters of design and style, we might see a greater willingness to accept development.

People look to the planning process first of all to protect the aesthetic quality of their environment. We should cherish that impulse for beauty, not stifle it. In this matter, the pursuit of beauty is the way to consensus, and consensus is the way to getting things done quickly, cooperatively and well.

Roger Scruton is the co-author, with Robin Wales and Jack Airey, of “Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis,” published by Policy Exchange with a Foreword by Secretary of State for Housing James Brokenshire