Housing minister: 'Let architects rip' to improve housing design

Housing minister Kit Malthouse has said the government's new design commission will urge developers to "let architects rip", arguing that good design is crucial to tackling Britain's housing crisis.

Good design: Christ's College, Guildford, which was shortlisted for the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize
Good design: Christ's College, Guildford, which was shortlisted for the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize

In a forward to a collection of essays published today by the centre right think-tank Policy Exchange, Malthouse says that the government's new Building Better, Building Beautiful design commission "will urge developers to make room for beauty and to let architects rip, for only they can save us from the blankness".

Malthouse writes: "My biggest challenge by far as housing minister will be convincing the British people that the land needed to solve the national housing crisis lies in their suburbs, villages, cities and towns.

"The only way we stand a chance of winning their support for this output is if they like what we build – beautiful buildings gather support; blank ubiquity garners protest and resentment.

"If there is one thing I achieve as housing minister I want it to be that articulation, detailing, proportion and vernacular become words used in the design of mass domestic architecture."

One of the essays, by Ben Bolgar, senior director at built environment charity The Prince's Foundation, condemns "woolly and wordy" planning policy for allowing badly designed housing schemes to secure permission.

Bolgar says that design standards in the revised National Planning Policy Framework are "simply not precise enough or certain enough for planners to exert any real control".

He calls for planning officers to be given more power to refuse schemes on design grounds - but only with reference to clear standards.

"The worry I have with encouraging planning officers to refuse schemes on the basis of poor design is that the planning officer suddenly becomes the arbiter of taste," he writes.

Bolgar says that clearly defined standards would make planning policy "more objective and developers would have fewer places to hide".

Planning policy should require meaningful engagement with local people on the design process; definitions for diverse housing types and tenures; diversity of employment spaces; and long-term management of sites, he says.

The Building Beautiful report also includes contributions from Create Streets director Nicholas Boys Smith, Labour MP Jon Cruddas, architect Sir Terry Farrell, and Sir Roger Scruton, chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission.

Scruton writes that the commission "has to report on the ways in which the public demand for acceptable design and beautiful aspect in the built environment can be satisfied, within the constraints affecting new development."

He writes: "There is no one style, no one template, no one conception of space and its uses that will satisfy the many demands before us. But if we do not put beauty at the top of the agenda we risk blemishing forever the face of a country whose beauty is one of the most important reasons why our ancestors laid down their lives in its defence."

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