What to expect from the new chief of the government's Beauty Commission

The new interim chair of the government's commission aiming to improve the design of new developments is a supporter of traditional architecture and greater public participation in planning and design, say observers.

Nicholas Boys Smith: appointed as interim chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (pic: Create Streets)
Nicholas Boys Smith: appointed as interim chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (pic: Create Streets)

Last week, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced that Nicholas Boys Smith has been appointed interim chair of its Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Boys Smith, who was one of the project’s four commissioners, founded social enterprise and urban research organisation Create Streets in 2013, which has a mission to promote low-rise, high-density, streetbased developments.

A former Tory parliamentary candidate, management consultant and director of Lloyds Banking group, Boys Smith takes over from the writer and philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who was sacked last month after what the MHCLG described as "unacceptable comments" in a magazine interview. In announcing the new appointment, Brokenshire said the commission intends to keep to its existing timetable, with an interim report to be published in July and the final report due by the end of the year.

Given the short timescale, commentators said they are unsure how long Boys Smith is likely to be in the role, though some suggested he may see it out for the programme’s duration. Boys Smith himself told Planning that since the commission was set up at the beginning of 2019, it has already reached a consensus on the issues it believes produces places where people want to live. Previously, he has said this includes walkability, greenery, access to finance and public engagement processes, as well as design. "I am taking stock of the evidence before drafting the report," he said.

Jack Airey, head of housing at the Policy Exchange think tank, which launched Create Streets in 2013, said Boys Smith worked closely with Scruton when he was chair and is well placed to take over. Ben Bolgar, a commission adviser who is senior director at community development charity The Prince’s Foundation, said Boys Smith has a preference for traditional architecture that is popular and has stood the test of time. He suggested, however, that his main role will be to maintain the commission’s momentum and to recommend key design standards for new housing.

Planning consultant Peter Studdert, another adviser, said: "The commission’s panel of advisers will play a key role in ensuring that Boys Smith keeps focused on the key principles of good design whatever the architectural style. The commission has an extensive paper before it, which highlights the issues it could address in the interim report. It will be important that issues of style are avoided as those issues are whittled down to key recommendations."

Boys Smith’s appointment has raised concerns among architects. In a Twitter post, Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire urged Boys Smith to maintain "impartiality" and warned him against "casting the architectural profession as an obstacle to progress". He called on Boys Smith to ensure that personal preference of architectural style are left at the door and to focus the commission on the key priorities. "It should support the development of well-designed communities and homes, of which architects play a pivotal part," said Derbyshire.

John Moss, a housing regeneration specialist who has known Boys Smith since 2001 when he was a prospective MP, said one of his concerns is that housing development is currently rules-led rather than people-led. "He aims to revise the rules because he thinks they affect the design quality of new housing development," said Moss. He pointed to a poll on Create Streets’ website that claims the more design awards a scheme gets, the less popular it is among residents.

According to Bolgar, Boys Smith’s ambition of transforming the planning system could feature in the commission’s conclusions. In a November 2018 report, Boys Smith wrote that Create Streets’ 15-year aim is to change the UK urban planning system by making the case for what it calls "popular housing" and helping communities to build capacity to fight their corner. He advocated the greater use of legally-backed design codes as a way to provide certainty for developers and local communities. These would be drawn up as part of a "co-design" process in which local communities work with planners and architects to determine key features of the subsequent schemes. It should, he wrote, replace the need for planning applications to be debated at length and "could actually value planning (and planners) more", adding: "It would free them up to focus on what really matters rather than being dragged into the miasma of countless development control decisions."

David Rudlin, director of consultancy URBED and chair of the Academy of Urbanism, said: "This use of design codes is similar to the system in other European countries. This approach would gain some support among masterplanners, if the commission proposed it." 

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