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Unveiling the Blueprint: NPPF’s Quest for Beauty in Building Better and Beautiful Places

#tldr The NPPF expects beautiful buildings, places and settings that are attractive, healthy, worth communities owning and caring for.  The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission challenged planners to refuse ugliness and seek beauty to turn anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home.

The NPPF (December 2023) aspires to well-designed and sustainable, beautiful and safe, attractive and healthy places, for all.

As Hansard records, back in 1908 John Burns MP (Battersea) commended the Housing and Town Planning Bill to the House in the expectation that it would “secure the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified and the suburb salubrious”.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes recognised “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new”.

So besotted has the NPPF become with beauty, the whole of chapter 12 is given over to “Achieving well-designed and beautiful places”.  And yet… beauty is not defined. Perhaps it is in the eye of the beholder or on the architect’s CAD drawing? Or perhaps where I see beauty you see ugliness.

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC), challenged planners to refuse ugliness and seek beauty that promotes healthy and happy lives by making a place: turning anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home.

Unlike the [not so] Ugly House, ugliness repels – unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly buildings destroy place, undermine community health and spirit.  The cost of ugly, mediocre development is passed onto future residents and their neighbours as the ill health and social pathology that poorly designed urban spaces cause.

Are we, as the commission suggests, building the wrong things, in the wrong places, and in defiance of what people want? If so, how strange! Although the right to build was nationalised, permissions are granted locally – we get what our local planning authorities permit.

The commission presumes planning officers protect countryside, confine towns and deliver beauty to the communities they represent. “Would that were the case!” would cry the many locals facing a dystopian monolithic urban extension or multi-lane boulevard carved through green space or open countryside.

Development should be socially and environmentally regenerative – restoring, renewing, replenishing – not parasitic mediocrity sucking the blood out of existing amenities and long-cherished ecologies.

People wish to walk in beautiful places, enjoy spending time with one another, relish conserved and repurposed beautiful buildings.  The private car has enjoyed a half century domination of urban landscapes – brutal, destructive highways, by-passes and under-passes: you can have any built environment you want, as long as it is ugly and combustion engine friendly (without too many apologies to Henry Ford).

The BBBBC established what makes settlements beautiful: townscapes of squares and snickets, mixed uses, durable adaptable affordable, heritage that fosters local distinctiveness, ecosystems of silvery waters clumps of trees or carpets of green, and communities hungry for stewardship that reduces litter, vandalism, crime, and reuses run-down buildings.

19th century philanthropists understood beautiful places lead to a healthier, more productive and loyal workforce.  Walking to shops, schools, library, post office, church, pub and café, restaurants, a park, GP surgery, a war memorial and a town hall is a spring of vitality, overflowing with life and transforming strangers into neighbours to form a community.

Demographic trends mean we need unprecedented quantities of new housing, in specific parts of the country. We must use the NPPF to demand quality and reject mediocrity in that housing.  No more vertical slums that isolate their occupiers and breed crime.

As we develop places for the rest of this century, I wonder if we will demand a planning system that asks for beauty, refuses ugliness and promotes stewardship?

Paul Nathanail writes in his personal capacity. He is a Chartered Geologist and Specialist in Land Condition. He is a director of Land Quality Management Ltd.

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Article originally published by Landmark Information Group.