A blog about planning, planning law and planning policy


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In keeping, out of keeping, shoddy or beautiful

Michael Gove

I was struck by a small paragraph on the front page of The Times last Tuesday (15 November if anyone wants to check). It said “Developers seeking planning permission for new homes with designs out of keeping with the local area may have the projects “called in” by the government and vetoed. See page 2”.

I turned to page 2 where the article was headed “I’ll stop builders putting up shoddy houses, vows Gove”.  That sounds completely different from the front page summary. The article explained that Michael Gove, currently the Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities, will call in planning applications for ugly new houses. In a speech the previous day at the Centre for Policy Studies (the think tank run by Robert Colvile) he said, “The experience of many buyers is that the incredibly expensive homes that they buy simply aren’t up to the standard that they should be.” He went on to highlight too many faults and defects and to criticise the use by housebuilders of “a restrictive pattern book with poor-quality materials, and the aesthetic quality of what they produce is both disappointing and also not in keeping with the high aesthetic standards that may already exist”.

The aim of new planning reforms he said is to hold developers to account and to reduce the factors that had made new developments so controversial. Beautiful homes, with infrastructure, democratic decision making and environmental enhancement would lead to the new homes and infrastructure the country needs.

But surely he is confused on this. On the one hand his concern is about “shoddy homes” faults and defects. On the other hand there is a separate concern about the aesthetic quality (or otherwise) of new housing. Is it beautiful? 

There can be little quarrel with the concern about the quality of the new homes. A new home, like a new car, new washing machine, new laptop or any other new item should be fault free. The excellent NHBC scheme for rectifying faults notified in the first two years and guaranteeing structure for ten years should be unnecessary. Of course, it performs a useful function of probably reducing the number and seriousness of faults and defects. But the planning system is not about faults, defects and shoddy building and it is not going to be possible to call in an application because the builder didn’t know how to connect the bathroom plumbing properly or how to install the sliding windows (two real examples from an NHBC snagging list on a newly built home). By then, it will be too late.

So what about the aesthetic quality. Aesthetic quality is something I strongly support and greatly desire, and it is undoubtedly true that the volume housebuilders rely heavily on pattern books (or standard designs). But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words we all have different ideas about what is beautiful. Is the Mona Lisa beautiful? Yes, it is a beautiful painting, skilfully executed, but is she beautiful?  People differ on the answer to that question. What I think is a beautiful house or development may not be what you think is beautiful.

I think also that we must acknowledge that the pattern book could deliver something beautiful. Many of us like Victorian houses and Victorian streets, almost all derived from pattern books. The current objections I think are to the use of the same patterns in different parts of the country and in different circumstances. Which brings us to that phrase “not in keeping”. It is a phrase which has fascinated me for many years. It is often used, like “overdevelopment” and “not sustainable” as a way to object to something new.  I have never seen any definition of “keeping” in this context and usage suggests it means something like “development which looks different from what is there already”. That cannot be a good test for acceptable design. If it were, we’d all still be living in caves.

So how do we define “beauty” in new housing? For example, Nicholas Boys Smith and the Create Streets group he founded seem to rely heavily on what local people think looks good. But my concern about that is that it will stop new and innovative designs. The Georgian window was an innovation when introduced. Its lovely proportions are the product of the then cutting edge of technology. The panes are the largest piece of transparent glass which could then be produced. Will future candidates for “Grand Designs” be limited to isolated houses in the country?

Michael Gove also wants to go for local opinion, taking the view that planning applications for new homes will be acceptable to local residents if it is understood they will be beautiful. But opinions about what looks good often change over time. I also think that it is unlikely that simply ensuring that new housing is “beautiful” and is thought to be so by local residents will make new housing developments acceptable to them. 

Yes let us strive for elegant housing, for good mannered design, but let us not thereby stifle innovative and even unpopular design, and let us not kid ourselves that the way to get support for new housing is to make it beautiful

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