Saturday, 1 August 2015

So what is beauty? A response to Res Publica.

Centrist think tank, Res Publica has put forward the idea that a 'right to beauty' should be enshrined in primary legislation:

Our report argues for a ‘community right to beauty’ to be introduced via primary legislation. The policy recommendations set out a range of new powers and incentives to support the democratic discernment of what makes a neighbourhood beautiful, and communities’ ability to independently create, shape and improve their locale.

It all sounds fabulous but, yet again, it starts from the premise of inequalities rather than any attempt to be objective about what we mean by beauty. There are several worrying questions that arise here - the democratisation of beauty (apologies for the ugly language), the presumption that access to beauty is limited or restricted, and the reminder that polished or preserved places represent the only beauty in an urban environment.

Let's start with an example. Is this beautiful?

It's OK, you don't have to answer the question - not everyone loves early 19th century industrial architecture. And if you visit the place pictured you'll see the sadness in its tattiness, the consequences of its redundancy and realise that all this is mixed into the gritty surroundings of terraces, traffic and litter.

Another example:

Easier this time - we all get that this is beautiful. A fifty foot waterfall setting in mature woodland - such scenes should be protected, cherished and celebrated.

The two pictures are about seven miles apart yet could be different countries. Indeed, I'm pretty sure than most of the people leaving near the first picture don't even know the falls exist. They are private, secret. A little piece of magic tucked away. There is no tourist sign, no 'interpretation', no urbanising of a wonderfully rural setting. But you can walk to it - for free.

The point of a democratic beauty is that it's determined by polls and majority opinion. I may consider that the serried rows of three-bed semis in the place I was raised contains a kind of beauty - a beauty of memory, of things done, with each corner revealing a little something that strikes to the soul, that reveals beauty. But the great and good do not consider this to be beauty, they tell us that nothing in the environment of the inner urban dweller is beautiful.

Our public poll is damning. It shows we are singularly failing the poor. A staggeringly high household income, more than £10, 000 above the national average (2), gives you better access to beautiful surroundings.”

Res Publica has gathered together a cross-party 'who's who' all proclaiming how important it is that people have 'access to beauty'. But this is beauty as defined by the great and the good not our own personal understanding of beauty. To return to access - what Res Publica are speaking of isn't 'access' but proximity. Their poll simply reflects the fact that places considered beautiful by a lot of people garner a premium for those wanting to live close by. To use urban examples, if you want to live overlooking The Stray in Harrogate or in Bath's Royal Crescent then you will be paying a substantial premium for such a pleasure.

But if I want to walk on The Stray, take photographs of the Royal Crescent or stand looking down on Edinburgh's Royal Mile then I can do so freely and without restriction for these are public places. The view from the summit of Whernside, the daffodils at Grasmere beloved of Wordsworth and the Windrush as it winds through West Oxfordshire - these views are for all of us, free and without restriction.

The Res Publica report presents an approach to beauty that is shallow and incomplete. It assumes that the "community" is more able to determine what is, or isn't, beautiful - guided of course by a new volume or two of planning guidance all carefully crafted by those appointed by the great and good rather than by communities (and due to be interpreted by the cold analysis of the lawyer). Think for a minute about the disagreements you've had with friends and family over choice of colours, buildings and vistas and then scale these up to the level of a community (whatever that might mean) - can a community determined definition of beauty ever really work?

This 'community right to beauty' proposal is simply a headline looking for an idea to go with it. But the idea isn't beauty at all, nor is it something excluded from existing planning controls - the idea is that we should protect places that work, promote the improvement of places that don't work, and, for new development, seek to build places rather than just buildings. None of this has anything at all to do with beauty - yet if we get it right we will have places loved, cared for and celebrated by their residents. And enjoyed by visitors.

Most of the tools needed for getting this right are in place. We do not need new legislation that creates a sterile definition of beauty in planning law. We have had community design guides for decades, we can create neighbourhood plans that make strong statements about the style of development and the provision of open space, and we have a local plan framework that incorporates conservation, listed structures and much else protecting heritage, ecology and environment. Most councils employ specialists to advise on design up to and including, for some places, a skilled city architect.

Finally beauty is a personal thing and should be respected as such. We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to persuade young people that there isn't some kind of perfection - a singular depiction of beauty - yet now we have people setting about doing just that for urban environments. And doing this because of a misplaced - indeed a stupid - belief that somehow such defined beauty is more democratic and more accessible. We don't need rules for planners and bureaucrats to stop things, we need to remember that the urban beauty we're celebrating - in Saltaire, in Bath, in York, on the canalsides of England - was built without planning legislation, without the great and good deciding what was or wasn't right.


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