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.

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL