Who decides what’s beautiful?

The recent announcement that the Government didn’t just want to build more but wanted to build beautiful has been greeted with plenty of “yeah, but who decides what’s beautiful?”

That’s perfectly fair. Tastes differ within and across age groups, geography and social background. There’s often plenty of snobbery in people who look down their noses at ‘houses that all look the same’. Wanting your house to be no different from anyone else’s in your community has plenty of fans around the country – just ask residents of some of the beautiful stone-built former pit houses in Derbyshire.

But the fact that beauty is subjective is kind of the point, as said by Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith in their report Living With Beauty from which the Government has drawn its inspiration.

Beauty is defined very broadly as anything that turns buildings into communities. People want to live in a place, not a unit. Most importantly, the report talks about a ‘co-design process’ that allows local residents to decide what they mean by beautiful and work with developers to build more of what they want.

That may sound simple but it’s the opposite of how the planning system is designed today. In opinion research conducted by Public First for Commonplace’s report Engagement for the Future, launched last week, we found that only 27% of people we polled had ever taken part in a planning decision. Of those 60% did so to object and 76% said that ‘it felt like a foregone conclusion.’ Another 52% thought that decisions about new developments were taken ‘in secret to avoid a public backlash.’

The fact that engagement with planning is both low and negative, that people don’t trust the system and feel that their voices are not heard is, unfortunately, not news. What is news is that there is a huge unmet appetite to get involved.

In our focus groups we found that people care deeply about the places they live and come from, no matter how run down they might be. They want very much to be part of helping to decide what their community will look like in the future and how it can improve. A massive 76% of our poll said that ‘people need to be given a greater say over new developments in their local area.’

We know this because although people rarely get the chance to engage in the process – 70% of respondents have never taken part in planning decisions before – when they do, they love it. 87% of respondents want to be notified of future projects in their area, and allowing people to engage with the planning process digitally would be a crucial step towards widening the pool of people engaging constructively in the planning process.

These are huge numbers but for anyone who has ever been involved in community engagement, this is no surprise. The reason why this works is because local people are talking to planners and developers in a completely different way. It’s a conversation rather than a confrontation.

Finding out what local people think is beautiful has got to be the point of these planning reforms – but the only way you can do that is by talking to them.