What we know about beauty commission chair Sir Roger Scruton's views on planning and design

Sir Roger Scruton, the controversial chair of a new government commission looking to improve beauty in the built environment, is sceptical about contemporary architecture but a supporter of a strong planning system.

Roger Scruton speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event last month.
Roger Scruton speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event last month.

The housing secretary James Brokenshire has asked Scruton to chair the new ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’. In the terms of reference, published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), it states that the commission's purpose is "to tackle the challenge of poor quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent".

It says the body will "gather evidence from both the public and private sector to develop practical policy solutions to ensure the design and style of new developments, including new settlements and the country’s high streets, help to grow a sense of community and place" (see panel right for more details).

Four further commissioners will be announced "in due course", the MHCLG said, with further support from a group of "around eight advisors". According to the terms of reference, the commission will produce an interim report and initial recommendations in July 2019 and a final report in December 2019. The commission will report to housing secretary James Brokenshire, it adds.

Scruton is under fire for past comments on anti-semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia. Less widely-reported are his views on planning and design - including support for a strong planning system and intensive community involvement - which he has revealed in various publications and at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting last month

Scruton has written two books on architecture, and has recently co-authored reports and written articles on the importance of good design in new developments. His traditional view of architecture and disdain for contemporary styles, as well as his support for strict planning laws, was outlined at last month's Conservative Party fringe event, held by think tank Policy Exchange. It discussed improving design of the built environment and also included housing and planning minister Kit Malthouse on the panel.

Scruton told delegates that he was "in favour of our strict planning laws". He said these meant that England, despite being the most densely-populated country in Europe, has countryside that "can actually look uninhabited" for "miles on end". He went on to say this preservation of the countryside was due to the work of conservation campaign groups like the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England in the early twentieth century.

He continued: "Our cities, I have to say, don't live up to the standard set by the countryside. You only have to look out of the window here [in Birmingham] to see. 

"But that kind of aesthetic vandalism is to a great extent also a product of the intellectuals who took over the architecture schools and ensured that no serious architecture would be taught in them. The only way of getting a large project going in a city is to design it as a hairdrier or kitchen gadget and then put nonsense on top of it."

Elsewhere, he said that contemporary architects want to "produce iconic buildings that stand out but don't fit in", rather than, as they did in the past, produce styles that can be repeated.

Scruton went on to say: "Nevertheless, what worries people more than the spoilation of city centres is the threat to the countryside by large-scale settlement. As a result of pressure from [campaign groups] in the first part of the 19th century, the 1947 Planning Act was passed guaranteeing green belts around the towns and ensuring that in the countryside, only special circumstances would permit any kind of large-scale development, anything that departed from the basic appearance of a farming community."

Scruton said that "when it comes to the identity and beauty our countryside, it's clearly not an economic question". He added:  "Our sense of place has been wound into our national identity more effectively than anywhere else in Europe."

He criticised post-war planning laws that encouraged the building of high-rise residential towers, pointing to research showing that this method "actually produces less population density than building the traditional street in which the houses stand side by side and face onto a shared public space".

He said: "That's what people want. That gives them a sense of place and a sense of home. The door on the street, the window that looks out over it, and the details chosen from a proper pattern book as they always were until the architects came along."

In addition, Scruton said it was important for local people to have more of a say on the design of new schemes in their areas. He said: "People should be given the choice locally as to what design of house the new development would incorporate and what materials and so on. That is a critical task to ensure the planning laws are open to the public and to general democratic choice in that way."

In June, a Policy Exchange report that Scruton co-authored on improving design in the built environment was published. The name of the report - Building More by Building Beautiful - is strikingly similar to the name of the new commission. The report, for which Brokenshire wrote a forward, makes a series of recommendations, many of which echo the themes that Scruton raised at the fringe event. These include calls for a new requirement in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for local authorites to produce a design and style guide "in consultation with residents". It also said the NPPF should make "local public will" regarding design and style a "more prominent feature of the definition of ‘sustainable development’", while councils should establish design panels, "a third of whose members should be architects living or practising locally", to advise on new developments above ten units. The report identified high land prices paid by developers as a key factor in the number of poorly-designed developments.

This is also not the first time that Scruton has advised the government on design issues. In December 2014, he was announced as a member of a panel to advise on the government's now-abandoned Starter Homes Initiative to promote low-cost homes for first-time buyers. The panel was proposed "to ensure that homes built under the initiative are well designed" and also included the planner-architect Sir Terry Farrell and representatives from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The Policy Exchange report can be found here.

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