Guest Post: The Value of Beauty by Vicky Payne of URBED

Successfully promoting sites for development is about more than just understanding planning policy. It is also about ensuring schemes are deliverable and, increasingly, that they are of a high design standard.

Ensuring proposals for new developments are well designed has multiple benefits. It makes it more likely that councils will support them; it helps developers achieve higher selling prices (and therefore delivers higher land values for land owners); and it makes new developments better places to live, with stronger communities.

The quality of housing design has recently been placed under particular scrutiny, with the government arguing that better quality housing will increase support for new schemes from local communities. In this guest post Vicky Payne, Senior Consultant at URBED, an award winning urban design co-operative based in Manchester, considers why design quality is important, how you define “quality” and what the future direction of policy might be.

The Value of Beauty

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have been preoccupied of late with the philosophy of art. It is something of a departure from the broadly mathematical rhetoric that has dominated the media for the last few years; “we need to build 200,000 homes a year! No, 300,000 homes a year! Has anyone seen my calculator?!”. Recently, it has broadened its view beyond such prosaic matters to explore aesthetics; the study of beauty.

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is an independent body set up to advise government on how to promote high quality design for new homes and neighbourhoods. Headed by on-again, off-again Chair Roger Scruton, the initial thinking was that objections to development would be greatly diminished if the buildings encroaching on the public sightline were aesthetically pleasing. This begs the question; how do we decide what is beautiful and what isn’t?

When it comes to human beauty we have a pretty clear idea about what we like. Criteria such as symmetry, sexual dimorphism (i.e. appearing very stereotypically male or female) and “averageness” (regularly proportioned features) have been shown in studies to be more attractive to other humans. Such characteristics light up the brains dopamine-driven reward network and can result in significant social benefits: better grades, higher salaries, more lenient sentencing. Developing such clarity when it comes to buildings however, is far more complex. Scientists such as Neurologist Anjan Chatterjee have started trying to generate hypotheses about neural responses to objects, but research so far has focused on sculpture and paintings, not the spaces that we inhabit.

The Commission’s interim report “Creating Space for Beauty” has not magically developed equally well-defined criteria for beautiful places, but it has begun to set out some sensible thinking about how the quality of UK development can be improved. The report acknowledges that “there can be no direct definition of beauty that will immediately be accepted by everyone”. It recognises beauty as an amorphous principle akin to “truth” and “goodness”, but points out that our inability to definitively answer the question “what is truth?” has not stopped us pursuing it through our justice processes. The report therefore advocates for beauty to be a collective ambition, but it’s actual recommendations are grounded in what we might better recognise as “place-making”. The full report and initial policy propositions can be found here.

Now, at this point you may be thinking “this is all very well and good, but where is the incentive for developers to pursue the lofty aim of beauty?” From a commercial perspective, the potential benefits are two-fold; reduced risk and greater returns.

We highlighted earlier the significant social benefits of bestowed upon beautiful humans, and the Commission wants beautiful development to benefit from a similarly easy life, with greater community support and an easier route through planning. One of the eight priorities within the report is to “urgently reduce planning risk” through more predictable design policy and standards, allowing for a smoother and less adversarial journey to a permission. This could support the participation of a greater range of actors in the market, which could begin to see small firms, custom builders and innovative developers playing a larger role.

The Commission also highlights the need for development to be “beautifully placed” advocating for greater certainty and clarity in strategic planning, with earlier agreement on quantum and consequent land values.

The report also advocates for development to adhere to key urban design principles; defined streets, a clear block pattern, distinctive and well cared for public realm and adaptable buildings of diverse types, with the whole responding to the surrounding landscape, scale, local character and materials. Numerous publications have demonstrated that a value premium can be achieved by building new neighbourhoods in this way.

Valuing Sustainable Urbanism looked in detail at new build schemes that demonstrated characteristics of mixed-use, street-based urbanism and compared their performance against more standard schemes within the same market. In each case the scheme with higher levels of place-making demonstrated a value premium. More recent reports from CBRE and Savills have reached similar conclusions. On a wider scale, the 2017 Create Streets report Beyond Location undertook an in-depth study of the economics of a place. Using “big-data” analysis of British cities, the report showed that beauty and urban quality can matter as much and sometimes more than connectivity or proximity to work when it comes to determining value.

Creating Space for Beauty was published under Interim Chair Nicholas Boys Smith (Founding Director of Create Streets) who was appointed following the high-profile removal of Scruton in April. Boys Smith arguably has a more grounded outlook than Scruton – a man who once said that a belief in the divine makes for better architecture. However, Scruton has since been re-appointed as co-chair, and the Commission’s final report is due to be submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government at the end of 2019. It will be interesting to see if the down-to-earth direction is maintained now the aesthetic philosopher is back on board!

One of the UK’s most well-established land promotion companies, The Strategic Land Group has more than ten years’ experience working to deliver quality housing development across England and Wales.

As a specialist land promoter, the whole process is entirely at our risk – if we don’t succeed it doesn’t cost you anything.

The Strategic Land Group will fund the whole process, with our return being a share of the value of the land once it is sold.

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