The beauty commission’s report is full of welcome ideas, writes Elizabeth Hopkirk. Now the government needs to act on them

… Beauty was always going to be a tricky subject for an objective report commissioned to tell ministers how to make building lots of houses more palatable to the public. The then housing secretary James Brokenshire (or his advisors at Policy Exchange) correctly identified that the aesthetics of new developments plays a significant role in whether they attract the paralysing wrath of Nimbys.

He set up a commission called Building Better, Building Beautiful and then appointed Roger Scruton, a philosopher with much to say on beauty, to chair it. In the eyes of most architects, each of these acts was akin to lobbing a hand grenade into the debate. But at the same time they recognised a rare opportunity to engage with a government that appeared to be genuinely interested in making housing better. Last week’s national housing audit demonstrates for any deniers how execrable most of our housing currently is. The reopened Grenfell inquiry provides an even more sobering lesson.

To be fair to both sides (as they could originally be characterised) the architects rolled up their sleeves and the commissioners listened to them. The profession’s reasonably warm reception to today’s report shows the “sides” have become blurred.

Living With Beauty, published just weeks after Scruton’s death, can’t resist dragging style wars into its commentary in places. But to their credit the commissioners were quick to understand that beauty is about far more than the look of individual buildings – and that achieving it requires far more than hiring a traditional architect.

The report is full of sensible practical suggestions such as using more visual and digital means to engage the public early in a project’s life, upskilling planning departments and committees and ending the ludicrous VAT incentive not to refurbish, as well as appointing champions of place in every local authority and even giving one a seat at cabinet.

Sound familiar? Well yes: versions of quite a lot of the recommendations were in Terry Farrell’s review carried out for the coalition. Only a handful of his 60 recommendations were ever implemented. Can we have any confidence that the similarly admirable Scruton report will fare any better? There are just as many powerful vested interests ranged against it…

On the eve of Brexit we urgently need a more humane development system |