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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.