Do looks matter? Putting beauty and design at the heart of local planning

How important of a factor is 'beauty’ in the development of communities that are fit for the future? The Office for Place (OfP) believes it should be at the heart of the local planning system.

Part of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), the OfP was set up in 2021 to shift how the planning system is used in order to create beautiful and sustainable places that foster a sense of community.

The office encourages local authorities to produce their own design codes -  a significant feature of the government’s planning reforms - setting out design principles that new development in their areas should reflect. For example, asking for new streets to be tree-lined, improving access to nature through design, and putting an emphasis on approving good design as well as refusing poor quality schemes. 

It recently published a list of ten criteria that represent good practice in creating, applying and enforcing design codes.

However, the importance of beauty continues to spark differing views as to its place in policy. At a recent event hosted by OfP and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), members of the OfP and senior civil servants discussed issues around creating beautiful places. 

In attendance was Stephen Bayley, Chair of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, who questioned whether it was appropriate to define beauty, emphasising its particularity to human nature. Chanuki Seresinhem, Head of Data Science at Zoopla, highlighted how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be implemented to collect and measure beauty, while Selina Mason, Director of Masterplanning at Lendlease, reflected on the limitations to these techniques; given that places can change and deteriorate over time - especially if they are not maintained properly. 

Joanna Averley, Chief Planner at DLUHC, believes a focus on beauty can help change the dialogue around development from a negative to a positive, and highlighted government plans to look at making planning and placemaking about health and wellbeing. 

As government start planning for its built environment, she said navigating the "constant tension" between time, cost and quality will require further collaboration at an earlier stage between architects, urban planners and government. "Unless you have the conversation at the right time, you lose the window to make a positive impact."

Empowering local communities

Rt Hon Lucy Frazer KC MP, Minister of State (Housing and Planning) at DLUHC believes that beauty will be a “cornerstone'' of the levelling up and regeneration bill, by focusing on bringing new life to neglected areas and prioritising local consent for new developments.

“Beauty matters to people and therefore it should matter to government,” she said. “The Bill and our support in communities is putting emphasis squarely on breathing new life into neglected areas and restoring people's pride in the place they live.

"While the Bill recognises that we have to build more homes, it also recognises that the way we do that is by making sure that development adds to the character of the area and comes with the right infrastructure so as not to put additional strain on already stretched public services.”

A fundamental part of this, Frazer explained, will be about "empowering local communities" by strengthening neighbourhood planning and digitising the system to make it easier for as many people as possible to have their say on local development. 

She underlined the need for architects to be more involved in the early stages of design planning. “This is what so often makes the difference between a place that feels like somewhere as opposed to a place that feels like anywhere.”

Green is beautiful 

Averley reflected on the current “moment of opportunity” to look at design and beauty from a sustainable perspective. She noted that the latest environment act will map green infrastructure and increase natural landscape and biodiversity

“It will have a huge dose of expectation on how we change places. We will be looking at increasing the amount of natural landscape and biodiversity and knitting our country back together again with local nature strategies.”

She said that a cross-industry response is vital in light of the need for climate adaptation building projects and addressing the housing shortage. “Local authorities simply do not have enough built environment planners available to them. Dealing with the scale of change coming at us means that we need a genuine cross-industry response and we need more people coming into local government.”

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