What is ‘beautiful’ development?


In the Planning for the Future whitepaper, the Prime Minister promised us reform of the planning system that would actively encourage “sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development rather than obstructing it”. The revisions to the NPPF in July are the beginning of that beautification of the planning system. From a baseline of zero, there has been a radical increase of four references to beauty in the NPPF. This raises the obvious question: what is beautiful?

As he appears to have introduced the idea, a sensible starting point when seeking to define beauty seems to be the Prime Minister himself. Here are a few things the PM has described as beautiful:

  • Blue Passports
  • Carbis Bay
  • Wood shavings
  • Cornish daffodils
  • Turkish-built washing machines

A detailed analysis of the construction and design features of Turkish washing machines is unlikely to assist when debating the beauty of competing housing schemes vying for permission as urban extensions. However, a recent Twitter announcement from the Prime Minister may do. In a video on 17 May promoting the Queens Green Canopy, he told us that “our trees make our country beautiful”. The beauty credentials of trees are now recognised within the new paragraph 131 of the NPPF which requires new streets to be tree-lined, an obligation that can only be deviated from when “there are clear, justifiable and compelling reasons why this would be inappropriate”…So trees are beautiful.

Robert Jenrick as Minister for Housing and Community Local Government has addressed the concept of beauty and planning more directly than the Prime Minister. Jenrick oversaw the publication of “Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth” the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This report does at length attempt to define what is meant by beautiful through both poetry and philosophical musings but also by some practical guidance. Beauty is seen as the opposite of ugly and we are told that everyone knows what is ugly. The report advocates “a focus on beauty is a return to the early tradition of English town and country planning’s concern with health and wellbeing”. The most succinct definition of beauty it proffers is perhaps:

“Beauty includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home. It is not merely a visual characteristic, but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there. So understood, beauty should be an essential condition for planning permission.”

…So healthy places are beautiful.

Elsewhere Jenrick has provided us with specific examples of beautiful places: “Poole is a beautiful place to retire to by the seaside” he once told Parliament. In July when speaking at a Policy Exchange event, the Minister singled out Matthew Lloyd Architects’ Bourne Estate in Clerkenwell for Camden Council as a beautiful place, describing the scheme as: “They are fantastic new homes. They are really beautifully designed […] and there are great public spaces around them. Tree-lined streets, playgrounds and community centres…” Comparators can be useful benchmarks when judging planning applications and planners will be grateful that the industry has been provided with some at the outset of this new age of beautiful planning …So Poole is beautiful.

Politicians can provide us with some guidance on what is beautiful but perhaps the law can provide us with some more. The introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was in part to protect the beauty of the nation and is often seen as the birth of the modern planning system. Yet before that, we had the seminal piece of legislation – the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928 – section 11 of which entitled local councils to make byelaws to regulate petrol filling stations “for the purpose of preserving for the enjoyment of the public the amenities of any rural scenery or of any place of beauty or historic interest or of any public park or pleasure promenade or of any street or place which is of interest by reason of its picturesque character” …Petrol stations are not beautiful.

Before the House of Lords in Robert Baird Ltd v The Corporation of the City of Glasgow, the Appellant sought to challenge a set of byelaws made under the 1928 Act and James Keith KC and RP Morison argued, “Opinions may vary concerning the beauty or the picturesque character of a place, yet the by-laws offer no criterion by which to judge of this question.”

When considering the areas of Glasgow that had been made subject of byelaws, Lord Tomlin found:

“There are to be found in each of them rural scenery, places of beauty or historic interest, public parks, pleasure promenades, and streets or places which are of interest by reason of their picturesque character. There may be considerable difference of opinion as to a number of those objects and places. There will be, no doubt, a difference of opinion as to whether some of them fall within the description of the section or whether they do not, but at any rate there are a considerable number of them present in each of the areas.”

Whether anything is beautiful is a matter of opinion but what is clear is that the law is beautiful…

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