David Cameron is correct: the right to live somewhere beautiful matters

One of London's less attractive bits of brutalism. Image: Getty.

Last month, David Cameron has acted on a significant injustice. The country’s worst post-war tower blocks, built quickly in response to high demand for social housing in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, will be demolished and replaced with more attractive low rise homes.

Some tower blocks are praised for their brutalist, modern style – but in reality, most are hated by the general population and particularly by those who live there. In recent public opinion polls, the reluctance to live in a tower block has been almost consistently unanimous.

There’s nothing subjective about it; these buildings are just plain ugly. And ugly surroundings erode aspiration, health and community; they trap people in a cycle of ever decreasing social mobility, and they cultivate crime. They are poor houses to house the poor, which is simply an assault on social justice. 


We have lost a public understanding that “beauty” is for everyone. Despite the significant benefits that more beautiful places can deliver, access to them is now deeply determined by class. Our research revealed that only those who come from a high social and educational background, and with an annual household income of above £45,000, are able experience beauty in their local area. 

Deprivation has as a result become even more evident and entrenched than ever before – embodied in post-war eyesores that have become characteristically known as our local housing estates. This class divide is dangerous, and one that needs to end.

Beauty didn’t used to be a class issue, nor a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. For Plato, beauty was a universal ideal to be discerned and realised by everyone; not an abstract concept only accessible to the wise.

For Aristotle, beauty could be found by all people in all things – albeit in varying degrees – and was far more than what simply met the eye: It revealed an object’s or person’s purpose, role in society and place in the universe. It was something to be debated and identified communally, and was central to the realisation of a just society. 

Such an understanding wasn’t exclusive to the ancient Greeks. The 19th Century philosopher John Ruskin and his contemporaries believed that beauty is objective and so can be shared and held in common. The Romantics, a movement whose acolytes were drawn from every class, shared with Keats the view that “beauty is truth”.

This axiom inspired the revolutionary and conservative political upheavals that were to follow: the “rights of man” that underpinned the French Revolution, and the Burkean view that beauty and truth are in nature and therefore must be universally accessible.

The truth about beauty

But beauty was not in the eye of the beholder, as the Enlightenment philosophers would have you believe. It is this damaging mantra that has caused us to think so individualistically and instrumentally about beauty, and to reduce its access – physical and intellectual – as well as its benefits and indeed creation, to a mere few in society. 

Alongside Ruskin, Burke and the Greek philosophers, we must argue that beauty is far more than a façade processed by certain individuals’ minds: it is inherent to everything that exists and holds value far beyond that which can be measured by social and economic analysis. It must be both discerned by and made accessible to all.

Cameron’s pledge to transform some of the country’s most run-down housing estates into more attractive homes is therefore a small but welcome move. It recognises, as our own research revealed, that ugly places impact negatively on aspiration, crime levels, health and safety. It also acknowledges that the creation of more beautiful places is central to eradicating poverty and deprivation, and therefore as a matter of social justice, must be done in service to the least wealthy in society.


But how do we ensure that these eyesores become icons rather than idols? An idol – traditionally understood – is an abstract and material imposition, which is praised by the few and holds no value beyond itself. An icon, on the other hand, is a mediating force. It has a much closer connection to people and its surroundings. Religious icons, for example, are often beautiful objects or paintings that point to a higher purpose. Millions of Christians visit icons every year, not to worship the item itself, but to participate in a communal activity to praise that which it is ultimately pointing to – in this case, God.

There is a very real danger, particularly with pressures on government to supply more homes, that idols rather than icons will be sanctioned for development. In other words, that what is deemed beautiful and good in the minds of the few – rather than the many in a given community – will be rapidly rolled out. 

This would radically undermine the value that such developments could offer, and will likely increase opposition to proposed plans. If we are to learn from our ancient and modern philosophers, we must understand that the creation of beautiful places, and beautiful buildings, must be discerned locally rather than imposed from the outside and above. 

To truly eradicate poverty from our most deprived estates, communities need to be granted greater powers and incentives to discern beauty locally and improve their local areas. Granting access to beautiful places must also mean granting access to its negotiation and creation. Government need to let go and witness the creativity that such a move could bring. 

Caroline Julian is head of policy & strategy at the think tank Respublica.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.