What’s actually in the “Building Better Building Beautiful” Commission’s report?

Suburban densification: an artist’s impression. Image: Francis Terry, via London YIMBY.

I assumed the Commission to Build Bloody Bucketloads of Beautiful Houses had been named by Jonn Elledge, but – sadly – I had misheard.

The not-necessarily-more-grammatically-titled Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission [sic] was presumably christened by someone inspired by childhood lessons on alliteration, but who felt themselves above the pedestrian distinction between adjectives and adverbs.

You might see a parallel with the planning system’s lofty rhetoric and its abject failure to, well, actually get any reasonable number of decent homes built; I merely note a common origin somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Orwellian riffs on that title I leave to you; I need to get to the point or my editor will cut this whole section. We all know what bowels produce, anyway.

Recovering from the linguistic atrocity at its birth, the Commission has proposed forty-five measures to improve what and how much we build, including a “fast track for beauty” featured in the Sunday papers.

Anyone who has seen a council planning committee might share my doubts whether beauty is the only concern of residents. Try to watch those meetings and to conclude they are a sane way for people to negotiate about what should be allowed. Congestion is another big objection. And don't forget the wheelie bins. Civilisation may end if you do.

“Some housebuilder[s]... believe they can build any old crap and still sell it.”

Senior executive in housing and development industry speaking to the BBBB Commission 

But the Commission has built an impressively broad consensus around some pretty sensible ideas.

Some of the underlying convictions peek through; for example, it would be fun to see the original description of highway engineers. The final, doubtless softer version suggests that the training of planners, architects and other related professionals – “particularly highway engineers” – should include the empirical research on what urban designs make people healthier and happier. Hard to disagree with that.

It proposes a range of things dear to urbanists: an end to suburban style parking requirements outside the suburbs (why not everywhere?), and an end to strict daylight/sunlight rules and large minimum distance requirements between homes – both of which are violated by every historic village anyway. We should also help high streets by encouraging gentle density around them.

On communities, the report presses for early engagement, more co-design and community-led development, including community land trusts, and to allow “intensification with consent”. The founder of HTA Design, Bernard Hunt, told them:

“My experience as a ‘community architect’ in both the public rented sector... and also in the owner-occupied sector... leads me to conclude that communities will actively support development/redevelopment IF there are clear incentives. Policy must be carrot- not stick-driven.”

In particular the Commission recommends trials to let individual streets vote to opt in to limited additional permissions, subject to design codes. This idea has got further than I expected, crazy though it seemed at the time. Perhaps I should write drunk more often.

It also argues that current methods of value capture to help local communities – Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy – “tend to fall short of securing real consent, since they so often fail to prioritise what really matters to the public, which is the enhancement or degradation of a place.”


There is a welcome recognition that permitted development rights, if continued, should have better standards, particularly as to external appearance, and no longer be able to bypass required contributions for infrastructure and other things.

The additional two million street trees it calls for won’t help with the housing crisis, but they might help make some places much more liveable. 

With Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets as the surviving chair, no-one will be surprised by the emphasis on design codes and simple, visual, form-based codes to make building better but also easier and more predictable.

“We need to turn our planning system round, from its existing role as a shield against the worst, to its future role as a champion of the best.” Hard to disagree with that too.

Congratulations to the Commissioners. For their Herculean and unpaid labours, we all have much to be grateful. Even the highway engineers.

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

 
 
 
 

Liverpool looks to move hospitality industry outdoors

One of the industries that’s taken the most immediate hit from the Covid crisis is hospitality. Bars and restaurants have been closed for the duration of the lockdown; even once it eases, the need for social distancing will reduce the number of punters they can serve at any one time.

There’s not much that can be done about the former problem, but one city, at least, is taking steps to tackle the latter. On Monday Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, announced a £450,000 project to redesign streets and enable businesses to create covered seating areas outside. 

The goal is a streetscape that looks more like many continental European cities, where cafes spill out of their premises into the surrounding streets. So a restaurant that finds, post-lockdown, that it now needs to keep tables 2 metres or more apart will be able to make up for some of the lost capacity by expanding its footprint.

Liverpool council is working with designers, the Chamber of Commerce and the Liverpool BID Company, another business group, on the project. Details of the criteria for the fund are being finalised, reports the Liverpool Echo, “and the process for being part of the pilot project will be announced in mid-June, once the phased reopening of retail in the city has begun and the impact been assessed”. If all goes well, lockdown restrictions on bars and restaurants are expected to begin easing in early July.

There are unanswered questions about how all this will work – whether it will require pedestrianisation or other changes to street design, for example, or to local planning restrictions – and it’s not clear how far that £450,000 will actually stretch. But this is nonetheless a lovely example of solving a problem while actually making a city better. 

Something similar is happening across the North Sea, incidentally, where the Dutch city of Rotterdam is allowing all businesses to convert parking spaces to retail space without a permit, and even offering them a loan of some free decking with which to do it. More here, albeit in Dutch.