In combination with the draft NPPF, MHCLG has published a press release which emphasises the importance of beauty and aims at getting local people involved in the process. This is commendable. However, the concept of “beauty” is utterly subjective. And beauty is only one aspect of good design.
Following Vitruvius’s philosophy, good design is based on beauty, durability/firmness and utility. The latter two must not be overlooked. In relation to durability and firmness, which should encompass sustainability and environmental aspects, it would be desirable if the updated planning framework made a stronger commitment to mirror the Prime Minister’s climate targets. “The planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate” comes across as weak. It would be helpful to include targets similar to the 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade (compared to 1990 levels) published in December.
In terms of beauty, it will be interesting to see how the potential conflict between “outstanding or innovative designs” and “local design guidance” can be resolved. There is scope for specialists to reconcile between traditionalists and techno-modernist, especially in a heritage setting. While per se an excellent tool to guide development, design guides and codes will require time, resources and expertise that will not be readily accessible. Will central government be able to provide resources? The views of local people are invaluable, but distilling a myriad of different, often opposing, views to inform future development is a challenging process. What must be avoided is that all design codes eventually look the same. Our villages, towns and cities need daring and quirky buildings to remain attractive and vibrant places. Again, specialist advice to write design codes that are flexible enough to evolve over time will be required.
MHCLG promotes the listing of local historic buildings. Here, sustainability and beauty come together. Historic buildings contribute to the quality of places and a strong local identity. Refurbishment, repair and reuse are strongly recommended as part of the sustainability agenda. Creative ideas can give any building another lease of life. Heritage groups, however, will highlight that the draft NPPF does not afford stronger protection to non-designated heritage assets.
These changes make conversations about how to build places that are truly beautiful while being viable and deliverable even more important. For a fully successful outcome of the new approach, however, we need an inclusive discussion about the concept of “beauty” and how this evolves over time. Then we can talk about funding and administrative issues.