The importance of beauty in planning came to the fore in April, when housing secretary Michael Gove called in and subsequently refused planning permission for a 165-home development by Berkeley Homes in Cranbrook, Kent.
This change in emphasis is the result of the publication in 2020 of the report Living with Beauty by the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which states: “Beautiful placemaking should be a legally enshrined aim of the planning system. Great weight should be placed on securing these qualities in the urban and natural environments. This should be embedded prominently as a part of sustainable development.”
Accordingly, the revised National Planning Policy Framework published last December states that beauty will now be: “part of the social objectives of the planning system as a whole”; “one of the key objectives for large new housing schemes”; and “fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve”.
In its almost 200 pages, the report uses the word ‘beauty’ 336 times and ‘beautiful’ 63 times, but it does not define what is meant by either. The failure to define ‘beauty’ opens up the potential widespread refusal of developments on this very subjective basis. It risks planning decisions being misguided, unexamined and open to subconscious prejudice, whereas planning should be the opposite.
In practice, it makes the whole process of designing developments more fraught with uncertainty, which is the last thing we need with so many other uncertainties in the planning system.
Beauty risks becoming the greatest single threat to the planning system – a weapon for any planning committee that wishes to oppose a planning application on nimby or other grounds.
Beauty matters – but in planning, certainty matters even more, because without certainty, planning frequently comes to a halt.
Our planning system is built on guidance, codes, policies and legislation. There is no place for subjectivity and personal interpretation.
Nigel Booen is director of design at Boyer