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Environment / Climate change

“Does the front of the house look nice?” is not a question about good design

The acronym “BMBH”, as CityMetric readers surely know, stands for the only way to solve the housing crisis: Build More Bloody Houses. But what if it stood instead for something a bit softer: Build More Beautiful Houses, perhaps? Could we make it all – Generation Rent, the soaring homeless population, NIMBYism, even our physical and mental health problems – go away, just by building more beautifully?

That is essentially the argument of Policy Exchange’s new report, Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis. On the face of it, nobody can really object to this idea. “Things should be beautiful” is hard idea to disagree with. As the report puts it, getting pretty Byronic for a think-tank paper on housing supply, “Beauty is a universal value… its existence as a shared aspiration and a guiding light is unchallenged”.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything else about the report is really very easy to disagree with.

The report’s argument is that if we try to build beautiful houses, we’ll be able to build more of them – because people won’t object to beautiful things being built, so development will be easier. And people will then be happier, because there’ll be more beautiful houses to live in and everything will be just lovely for everybody. (“People are overwhelmingly positive about the impact of good design,” the report helpfully tells us. People like things that are good: reports are also coming in that the Pope is a Catholic.)

All of which sounds lovely – and the report is correct to point out that good design and good housing makes people happier and healthier. Living at the whim of landlords because you’ll never own your own home is bad for your mental, and often physical, health. Evicting people from their homes so they can be demolished and replaced with flats that won’t be available to any of the people who use to live in the area is bad for communities.

But does the report tackle any of that? Does it even tackle the more obviously design-related reasons why housing in the UK is in such a miserable state – like the fact it has the lowest space standards of any country in Europe, and that they’re getting lower all the time? No, it does not – instead, it pivots stealthily from “good design” through “beauty” and on into its real goal: “traditional design”. That phrase replaces “beauty” halfway down the report. The authors are clearly hoping you won’t notice these aren’t actually the same thing.

Of course, they have data to show that what people like is traditional housing.  They conducted polls, asking people whether they agreed with such unbiased statements as, “Traditional design is not just about making buildings look better, it’s about improving the quality of life” – a notion with which 75 per cent of people agreed. (I would like to buy drinks for the solid 25 per cent of people who insisted, despite the obviously leading question, that “new buildings should be adventurous and different, even if they shock or offend people”. Are you triggered, traditionalists?)

Best of all is the appendix of focus-group data, detailing how Policy Exchange showed some people a handful of pictures of buildings transparently nabbed from Rightmove, and asked them “Which, in your opinion, has the right ‘look and feel’ for an urban setting/suburbs/rural areas?” The pictures they used, helpfully shown in the appendix, are hilarious: bizarrely, it turns out that people like the look of a nice clear head-on picture of some Georgian townhouses more than they do a blurry, overhead, zoomed-out picture of the Barbican that doesn’t show what the individual living units look like at all.


The results also clearly show that the people surveyed consistently dislike vaguely neo-traditional stuff plonked down as if it’s always been there – but the authors end up calling for that anyway. Sweetly, the report finishes up by remembering to say that, “To be clear, a stronger emphasis on good design need not, and should not, come at the cost of affordable housing.” But it doesn’t say exactly how that would be avoided: in fact, flying the flag for traditional architecture just ends up making it harder to get new things built and further inflates the value of the property people already own.

Nor does the report ever actually address how we could attain good design.  “Does the front of the house look nice?” and “Wouldn’t you like to live in this large house in Chelsea?” are not questions that tell us anything about good design. Good design is actually about liveability inside and out, accessibility, adaptability – all things that architects of all periods can get right or wrong. Yet the authors apparently think – while straight-facedly calling for a greater role for the profession – that the job of an architect is to whack a country-cottage facade on everything in sight.

Who are these authors, you might ask? Why, alongside wonk and occasional CityMetric writer Jack Airey (and after an approving foreword by James Brokenshire, the current housing minister), the other two authors are Sirs Roger Scruton and Robin Wales.

Scruton is the long-standing king brain of intellectual conservatism – a sort of 80s Jordan Peterson (and for many years the New Statesman’s wine critic). He knows nothing about architecture, planning or housing, however: presumably he just has a google alert for the word “traditionalism”.

Wales, meanwhile, is the former Labour mayor of Newham, ousted earlier this year by a local party livid that, among other things, he’d failed to provide any meaningful social housing provision. To be fair, though, he does have a track record of taking an interest in design, having bought several lamps at a cost of over £1,800 each for his new council offices. (The wild cost of such things may have been another reason why his party eventually got sick of him). How charmingly post-partisan to see that a former Labour mayor – of one of the poorest parts of London, no less – can find a new role in life writing reports that Tory ministers are happy to endorse.

Ben Brock lives in London, works in publishing, and yells about buildings on twitter as @cinemashoebox.
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