Fierce debate has been raging in the architecture and planning professions in the last few months, over the Tory government’s latest intervention in the construction industry. The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission, launched by Housing Secretary James Brokenshire in November 2018, has been ruffling feathers due to the perception that it is a deliberate provocation of the architectural profession as a whole. But beyond debates about aesthetics, something far more sinister is afoot.
The commission describes its primary aim as being ‘To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns, and high streets, to reflect what communities want.’ Alarm bells rang from the very beginning when it turned out that conservative philosopher Roger Scruton was to be chair. Many architects remember him as a foot soldier in the 1980s style wars, when Prince Charles made his passionate attempt to turn the architectural world upside down. Scruton’s early book The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) became a key text in these battles, arguing for traditional ideas of beauty.
A self-consciously parodic figure, like Eeyore in a tweed suit, Scruton has variously been accused of misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. This has led to calls for his dismissal, but the focus on Scruton has distracted from the commission itself. It has grown from a report Scruton co-wrote that was produced by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, long-standing suppliers of new policy to the Tories. Nicholas Boys Smith, a figure with close links to the Conservative Party, is one of the commission’s four panellists.
Boys Smith is the director of the organisation Create Streets, which was itself launched through a Policy Exchange report, in 2013. Their stated mission is to promote ‘high density, beautiful, street-based economically, and socially successful developments with strong local support and which residents will love for generations’. Online, Create Streets have a cuddly persona, posting nice pictures of pleasant mews houses and asking us to like them. But pretty houses aren’t all that they promote. The original Create Streets report for Policy Exchange advocated the demolition of London’s multi-storey housing estates in order to create higher density neighbourhoods, a call which has been repeated from the centre by Andrew Adonis in IPPR’s City Villages (2015) and also in the property consultant Savills’ report Completing London’s Streets (2016), to which Create Streets contributed. All of these reports hinge upon the possibility of increasing the housing density of land which is currently under local authority control.
The underlying rationale is that through the use of compulsory purchase orders, council estates can be treated as ‘brownfield land’ and the buildings cleared for replacement, as has already happened numerous times in recent years. The reports advocating redevelopment of council estates pay lip service to the rights of existing communities to remain where they are, but in practice this is the first thing to go out of the window. The new commission is part of a longer battle to clear communities who are not providing optimal returns on potential investments. ‘Beauty’ is a means to an end: profit.