93. Beautiful places – aspiration or edict?

In England, national planning policy represents a moveable feast with the latest proposed incarnation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) currently out to consultation.  As planning policy relates to design, this blog has tracked the twists and turns over the years, design being a particularly twisty focus of national concern!  The latest incarnation, however, continues a more recent relatively consistent trajectory during which the design-related wording from the original (2012) version of the NPPF was strengthened (slightly) in 2018, then again (quite substantially) in 2021 and now again in 2023.  

Ratcheting up design terminology, mentions in the NPPF

Included in this latest edit are both big picture and detailed changes, from bolstering the new beauty objective introduced in 2018 (the focus of this article), to pragmatic changes to make the monitoring and enforcement of delivery easier, notably an exhortation to local planning authorities to insist on the submission of clear and accurate drawings that provide visual clarity about proposals.

Drawing beauty out

The emphasis on beauty is not new, but in this iteration of the NPPF is given steroids, beginning with a somewhat exalted perspective on beauty articulated in the consultation document.  This defines beauty as “the benchmark that all new developments should meet”, encompassing “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”.  In sum, a much broader perspective than many would associate with the term.

Reflecting this, in the proposed revisions to the NPPF, the terms ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ are repeatedly used in relation to the built environment, epithets that until 2021 were reserved exclusively for the natural environment.  Almost always this occurs alongside the term ‘well-designed’, for example in title of the dedicated design section, now re-titled: ‘Achieving well-designed and beautiful places’.  Given that the visual quality of the built environment has long been an integral part of the larger design quality agenda (central, for example, to the ten characteristics of well designed places in the National Design Guide), this raises the question, why draw out and headline beauty in this way?

Perhaps the most significant recent change to the design wording of the NPPF was the 2021 change requiring that development “that is not well designed” should be refused, replacing earlier wording that simply advocated refusing “development of poor design”.  As Place Alliance research – Appealing Design – revealed last year, this change had a significant and immediate impact on how Planning Inspectors were evaluating schemes.  So, will the liberal sprinkling of ‘beautiful’ in policy give Planning Authorities and Inspectors a new lever to pull to further ratchet up a squeeze on poor quality development?

In 2021 inspectors were clearly very comfortable constructing reasoned and objective design arguments, often referencing the governmental concern for beauty.  They tended, however, to utilise established and objective design principles when evaluating schemes, and avoided attaching their own value judgements to them, for example by declaring that a proposal was likely to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’.  As one Inspector noted “There is I believe something of a tension between identifying a building as an exemplary piece of design which is an objective finding based on established architectural principles, and adorning a building with the epithet ‘beautiful’, which is a subjective one.  To my mind, my finding that the building would attain a very high (or exemplary) standard of design is sufficient to justify a conclusion that the proposal does not fall foul of Government advice on the subject”.  

Coding for beauty (or not)

The pilot teams involved in the recent design code pilots tended to back this perspective.  Most struggled with the notion of beauty as a decision-making measure, and few found it useful in either their analysis, engagement or coding.  Instead, they tended to prioritise more tangible issues that, it was argued, define local character and which could be more readily defined in their design codes.  For the pilots, these enduring qualities of places related to factors such as landscape, density, height and building line.

This reluctance to explicitly code for beauty is significant given that a further major addition to the proposed NPPF seeks to bolster the use and status of design codes by establishing them as “the primary means” of “assessing and improving the design of development”.  The change builds upon a requirement in the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, which when enacted will require that all local planning authorities adopt authority-wide design codes as an integral part of their development plan.  

Whether evaluating appeal decisions, writing design codes or making other design-based planning decisions, the reluctance to use beauty as an everyday yardstick for quality is notable and widespread, but this does not nullify the value of drawing out the term.  Instead, the potential justification lies in two places:

  • First, as an aspiration, upping-the-ante and establishing an ambition that unequivocally foregrounds design quality in planning decision-making.  
  • Second, as the ultimate judgement against which an explicitly aesthetic assessment of design quality can be made (while bearing in mind that design quality amounts to so much more than this).

The question of taste (or judgement)

Taking the second first.  Here we come up against the problem that not everyone would agree that a conventional assessment of beauty should always be the ultimate milestone for good urbanism.  Sometimes it might benefit from being challenging or discordant or simply different.  

In his 1847 novel Tancred, Benjamin Disraeli took the opportunity to criticise the Georgian and Victorian expansions of London which today we revere.  His protagonist labels them “very monotonous”, complaining “it is impossible to conceive anything more tame, more insipid, more uniform” and recommending – with tongue in cheek (one assumes) – that hanging the architect would be the correct solution for dull architecture.  While few would argue for such drastic sanctions today (I hope!), the extract demonstrates, first, how tastes vary (perhaps more than we recognise) and, second, how they evolve through time.  

“All those flat, dull, spiritless streets, all resembling each other” Benjamin Disraeli – tastes change

At this point the issue of taste rears its ugly head, reminding us that it wasn’t long ago that Government policy explicitly warned local authorities not to “impose their tastes on developers simply because they believe them to be superior”.  These words held sway from 1980 and the infamous Circular 22/80 until John Gummer’s re-write of PPG1 in 1997 swept them away.  Yet while taste undoubtedly varies, at any one time there are majority tastes as well as minority ones, using the taste card to simply shut down conversation about what is or is not aesthetically acceptable in different circumstances (as Circular 22/80 and its descendants did) is, arguably, more unacceptable than trying to understand and deal with the matter.  Being able to balance such judgments, ideally in a pluralistic and inclusive manner, is one of the strengths of a discretionary planning system (when it works well), although at the cost of time and uncertainly, as such matters can never be coded in a manner that overcomes the need for careful judgement.

… and mansard roofs

The argument can be illustrated by relating the issue to a further proposed design-related revision to the NPPF, this time the requirement for local authorities to be much more positive about mansard roof extensions in the interests of encouraging ‘gentle densification’.  The consultation document unequivocally states: “all local planning authorities should take a positive approach towards well designed upward extension schemes, particularly mansard roofs”, while the proposed wording in the NPPF nuances this, suggesting that upward extensions should be allowed “where their external appearance harmonises with the original building”.  In other words, there is an aesthetic judgment to be made rather than an automatic assumption.  

This was an issue tested in a further Appealing Design case where a single and narrowly aesthetic ground was used to refuse a scheme for the upward extension of a disused ex-industrial building to create apartments.  In this case the Inspector considered a wide range of design and planning matters, deeming them acceptable, but rejected the scheme based on the inclusion in the design of an “uncharacteristic, anti-contextual” mansard roof.  He noted that “the creation of beautiful buildings, rather than mostly beautiful buildings, is a fundamental aim of the planning process”, implying that buildings need to be beautiful in their totality, and that even a single discordant part can undermine the whole.  Such a judgement might be dismissed as a matter of taste (the Inspector’s versus the applicant’s) or applauded as the careful reasoned judgement of a dispassionate third party having duly considered the aesthetic impact and found it wanting.  The Government’s new-found belief in mansard roofs needs implementing with care if we are to avoid an uglier built environment.

An “uncharacteristic, anti-contextual” ultimately ugly mansard roof

Aspiration or edict?

Returning to the first justification for eliciting the language of beauty, this reason implies that something better than competent design is required and instead that the aspiration should be for something that genuinely moves us emotionally, something that is beautiful in a deeper way.  In other words it is about attempting to raise the bar.  Whether one agrees with this use of the term, it is interesting that beyond the UK, the language of beauty has been increasingly elicited by Governments, internationally.  Two examples from different sides of the Atlantic show how it has been deployed in quite different ways, one as an aspiration and the other as an edict.

Taking the edict first, one of President Donald Trump’s last acts in office – Executive Order 13967: Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture – stipulated that all new Federal buildings should be “beautiful”.  This, the order narrowly defined as “traditional” in style, and preferably classical (although Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial and other Mediterranean styles were also acceptable).  The order lasted just 69 days into the Presidency of Joe Biden before it was revoked, but in that time amounted to a top-down command on what was beautiful, in this case eliciting the language of classicism that has often been associated with the right, and explicitly rejecting all forms of Modernism which the Order directly linked to socialism.  In the UK, the pronouncements of Ministers and their close association with certain lines of thought have sometimes sailed close to the wind of an outright endorsement of traditionalism, but perhaps anticipating the inevitable style-wars backlash that would ensue, have not, so far, crossed that line. 

The European Union have also embraced beauty, but in this case as a high level aspiration as one leg of a tripartite statement of “inseparable values” – beautiful, sustainable, together – to inform the work of the New European Bauhaus.  With a title deliberately echoing the language of Modernism, the New European Bauhaus encapsulates an ambitious attempt to capture and advance a very broad agenda that recognises the central role of the built environment if the Continent’s simultaneous climate change and quality of life ambitions are to be met.  Beautiful, in this initiative, is defined as “quality of experience and style, beyond functionality”.  Thus, instead of a defined set of principles that every project, policy or initiative should be somehow judged against, it is about eliciting a quality in new places that stirs the heart and offers a goal to which developers, regulators and designers should strive.  

The three inseparable values of the New European Bauhaus

Beautiful, sustainable, inclusive design

The collective embrace of beauty narratives by Governments demonstrates a new found confidence to venture into one of the more intangible and thereby challenging areas of design policy-making, albeit how this is interpreted varies hugely.  Returning to the emerging policy in England, while at one level the mention of beautiful alongside and every time well-designed development is mentioned in the NPPF is entirely superfluous (the second encompasses the first), if the intention is to raise the national ambition, rather than to set a new measurable criterion that could never be objectively coded for or assessed, then that is its true value.  

In this sense beauty exists as a possibility to be achieved through time as the ultimate result of good design (and good coding) and the language of beauty helps to set an aspiration that is higher than would otherwise be achieved without it.  If, in the future, sustainable and inclusive design are added alongside it and garner equal attention from Government, then we will be truly getting somewhere?

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


A note for the design policy obsessives (perhaps just me!)

In 2012 and 2018 the term ‘beauty’ was reserved exclusively for scenic or natural beauty, being used eight times in NPPF (not including the glossary), while the term ‘beautiful’ was not used at all.  Instead, the aspiration for an aesthetically pleasing built environment was described through the term ‘attractive’, a term used twice in 2012 in relation to the built environment and once in the different sense of being economically attractive.  

Government in England began its recent journey towards a stronger emphasis on design quality around 2017/18 when a series of Design Quality Conferences marked a change in tone (from indifference to an increasingly positive engagement with design).  Initially this was reflected, rather modestly, with two additional mentions of the need for a visually attractive built environment in the 2018 re-write of the NPPF (alongside other substantive changes).  However, following the publication of the Government commissioned report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission – Living with Beauty – the language of beauty was extended to the built environment.  Thus in 2021 there were five mentions of the need for beautiful development, alongside two additional mentions of attractive.  

This is set to be topped by the proposed 2023 wording which doubles the mentions of beautiful in relation to the built environment, with many of the new references featuring outside the NPPF’s core design paragraphs.  In turn this makes more explicit connections between a beautiful built environment and other policy arenas, including such matters as land supply and density, the rural economy, and the creation of healthy, safe places.