On aesthetics and housing policy

The Whistling Witch, a tower on a corner in Poundbury with a brick portico at street level and a four-sided spire at the top.Recently social media has been abuzz with comment on the new government housing ‘tsar’, Roger Scruton, previously best known as a philosopher and commentator for various magazines including the Spectator and New Statesman. His position is the chair of a government commission on building ‘beautiful’ homes, which apparently explains why a professor of philosophy is appointed to a position that has anything to do with housing given that he is not known as a writer or authority on that subject. Buzzfeed and others have reminded us of all the very bigoted things he has written over the years, most recently his links to the authoritarian and anti-intellectual Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his comments about the Hungarian intelligentsia, namely that many of them were Jewish “and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire”. As Zoe Williams puts it in today’s Guardian, “every time they chuck a job at one of their mates, the most casual scrawl through their Twitter feed reveals that a lack of any meaningful qualification or transparent application process for the role is the very least of their problems”.

When I questioned what exactly Scruton’s qualifications were, I was reminded of his writings on aesthetics and when I pointed out that there was more to housing policy than aesthetics, someone told me “Well look at those ugly blocks built in the 60s and 70s. Ugly buildings affect the people living in it”. This sounds a lot like prejudice or snobbery wrapped up in pseudo-science to me. I grew up in a town that had many of these buildings; nobody who didn’t grow up in a very small town is unfamiliar with them. While they were rundown by the 1980s when I was a child, in the 60s and 70s when they were built, they were places people were glad to move into after living in slums, prefabs and bedsits; people took pride in keeping the insides clean and tidy while the councils took care of the landings and grounds. At the time, these developments were considered prestigious and futuristic and people quite willingly moved into them, and if you live in a cosy flat in one of these externally unattractive buildings then seeing the exterior will not have a bad effect on you, because you know that they are full of cosy flats like your own, each decorated to reflect the tenant’s tastes.

It was only in the 1980s when Thatcher forced councils to sell council houses and flats off while imposing rate caps that prevented councils from maintaining them properly that they started to become rundown. In cities where high-rise buildings are common, they are often seen as perfectly desirable places to live, and in this country one notices that the ugly council block stereotype is only applied to blocks that poor people live in. Even Grenfell Tower was regarded as a great place to live before and after it had been fitted with the infamous flammable and toxic cladding so that it would be less of an eyesore to its wealthy neighbours. Nobody would suggest that the architecture of the Barbican has a negative effect on the people who live there.

Of course, it is an advantage for housing, public or private, to be attractive on the outside as well as the inside, but it is noticeable that the more attractive public housing that existed at the beginning of the 1980s, the houses that can be found in every town and village, are the ones that got sold off while the grey concrete buildings are more likely to be still in public hands or ended up in the hands of private landlords who now rent to people on housing benefit. But there is more to a ‘beautiful’ housing development than just pretty buildings. If we look at what makes a new development such as Poundbury in Dorset successful, we see that it was planned to include public services such as doctors’ surgeries and shops as well as some light industry (including, appropriately, an organic cereals factory) while a lot of new development, despite including only private properties often on sale for six-figure sums, often contains no amenities and requires residents to drive off site to find them. Poundbury is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (i.e. Prince Charles’s estate) which is one of the few landlords in the district (if not the only one) to accept Housing Benefit tenants; many other new developments make no attempt at social diversity.

I don’t suggest that Prince Charles should have been chosen to chair this commission — there may well not be the time left before he becomes king and will have to put aside such commitments — but perhaps one of the architects or planners behind Poundbury could have been chosen, or someone who has actually studied planned developments such as Saltaire or Bourneville that were commissioned by philanthropic industrialists with both beauty and diversity in mind. I’m sure the government could have found someone whose Tory credentials were as impeccable as Scruton’s who would not have been exposed as a bigot with a simple Google search within 24 hours. We mostly agree that brutalism is, and should remain, a thing of the past in this country but mere aesthetics do not guarantee a healthy community.

Image source: Zonda Grattis, AKA Luridiformis, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.

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