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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.