What now for Scruton's beauty commission?

The need to find a new chair for the government-appointed Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission following Sir Roger Scruton's sacking has raised questions about its ability to meet its target of reporting this year. But insiders say a lot of work has already been done, and that discussion has moved beyond architectural styles to other place-shaping factors.

Sir Roger Scruton (pic: Getty Images)
Sir Roger Scruton (pic: Getty Images)

The government is urgently seeking a replacement for the chair of its Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission following the sacking of Sir Roger Scruton after what the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) described as "unacceptable comments" made in an interview with the News Statesman by the writer and philosopher. In the interview, Scruton had said that Islamophobia was a propaganda word "invented by the Muslim Brotherhood" and that "each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one".

The commission was launched by housing secretary James Brokenshire last November. As an adviser to government, it has been given a remit to develop practical measures that "promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area".

The commission is scheduled to submit its interim report to the government by the end of June and publish its final report by the end of the year. One commissioner, Nicholas Boys-Smith, the founding director of campaign group Create Streets, said he hoped that the identification of a new chair would only cause a slight delay, but that it would depend on who was appointed to the role.

The commission has held monthly meetings since February, comprising two hours with its nine advisors, and an additional one hour solely involved the four commissioners.

Consultant Peter Studdert, a former director of planning at Cambridge City Council who is an adviser to the commission, said that Scruton had devoted considerable time to his new role "and it would be difficult to find a successor who could give it that commitment". Scruton had recently presented the commissioners and advisers with a 20,000 word summary of the issues, according to Studdert. This paper was based on evidence sessions the commission had held, and site visits to locations across England. The commission has also received extensive written evidence.

Chris Brown, executive chair of developer Igloo, suggested that various senior architects had been approached to succeed Scruton. "The government is looking for a less controversial character who has been involved in the commission’s work to sustain it," he said.

Scruton’s appointment had provoked controversy from the outset due to his traditional views on architecture and his criticism of contemporary styles, according to David Rudlin, director of consultancy URBED and chair of the Academy of Urbanism. He argued that the new chair should not be allied to one aesthetic approach. "The new chair needs to understand how successful places work and how beauty can add to that," he said.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said that the new commission chair should understand the need for a design-led approach to delivering new housing. "Rampant land value speculation has diverted a large proportion of the finance available for development," he said. This had resulted in low cost and low quality schemes, he argued.

The commission’s discussions had got beyond the debate over architecture styles and had looked at the key ingredients for a successful community, according to another commission advisor Ben Bolgar, who is senior director at the community development charity the Prince’s Foundation. The challenge for the new chair will be to distil this broad agenda into a set of key recommendations to government, he said.

Boys-Smith said that the commission was considering beauty alongside other factors which contribute to making successful new housing development. These include walkability, greenery, process, access to finance, the process of public engagement and the nature of government regulation, according to Boys-Smith.

Despite the absence of anyone from the planning profession as a commissioner, the commision had been keen to hear from planners, said Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI, who was interviewed by the commissioners at one session. "The way design issues were treated by the planning system was a concern [for the commissioners]," he said. "I stressed the importance of ensuring planning inspectors give greater weight to design considerations when schemes are referred to them".


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