housing

The Government Does Not Need a Commission on 'Beautiful' Buildings

Controversy has surrounded the sacking of conservative philosopher Roger Scruton from the "Building Better, Building Beautiful" commission for his terrible opinions. But the commission itself is a missed opportunity.
May 1, 2019, 7:45am
Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton. Photo: GL Portrait / Alamy Stock Phot

The coiffed hair and abhorrent views of conservative philosopher Roger Scruton have been hanging around at the top of the news agenda ever since he was sacked as the government’s housing advisor. Scruton’s dismissal was the result of a recent interview he gave to the New Statesman, in which he revealed that he runs a summer school called "Scrutopia".

As if making a pun on your own name wasn’t enough to get him sacked, he then went on to rehash some of his worst opinions. Hungarian Jews, he said, are part of a "Soros empire" (a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy theory) and the country has been subject to "the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East". Don’t worry, though, because Islamophobia – he said – is just a "propaganda word".

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His comments were much like those of that bigot stranger at the pub who you can’t get rid of, albeit dressed up in an academic tone.

The day the interview was published, Scruton lost his job, causing his mates at the Spectator magazine to go into meltdown, prompting a round of recriminations and counter recriminations between Scruton’s detractors and fans.

In all the whining from conservatives that their boy was unfairly ousted from a job, nobody has really pointed out that his job and the government policy behind it were pretty bizarre to begin with. He was the chair of something called the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The government came up with this in November of last year, saying it was supposed to "raise the level of debate regarding the importance of beauty" in new housing development.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like to point at colourful blocks of flats and say they’re "shit" as much as the next person. But aren’t there more important things for the Ministry of Housing to worry about? Like, I don’t know, the average 20-something in London spending more than half their income on rent, the hundreds of tower blocks still covered in combustible cladding nearly two years after Grenfell, or the collapse in the numbers of homes built for social rent over the last decade.

In fact, Scruton himself might agree with me. In January, he admitted that the whole commission could be a government decoy to distract from the UK’s more pressing housing issues. At a panel event he conceded, "I’m here in order to make it look like something is being done."

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But even if the government had all the time in the world to focus on everything at once, is it really a good idea for a few people to sit around a table and decide what new housing should look like?

Probably the strongest argument in favour of the commission came in the report that prompted it, co-authored by Scruton himself for the influential and opaquely funded (they don’t even reveal the identities of their donors) think-tank Policy Exchange. It suggested that one obstacle to building vital new housing in the UK was the opposition of local communities, and that this could be overcome by building better-looking homes.

Unfortunately, the report’s conclusion is contradicted by its own polling, which shows that less than three in ten people from London and the South East think too many homes are being built in their area. The vast majority of those polled also said that homes should "fit in with their surroundings", a bland statement. But the think-tank had no figures on whether people would support or oppose new homes based on this.

The second half of the report is then devoted to the merits of "traditional" architecture, supported by a few more polls with leading questions.

Overall, it contains little evidence that local opposition is a significant problem and does not prove that this could be overcome with "traditional" architecture. And what even is traditional architecture, anyway? If housing minister Kit Malthouse's tweets are any guide, new homes should look like a neoclassical courthouse in Alabama.

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This stuff is easy to mock. But not as easy as the views of Roger Scruton, chair of the commission set up to decide what new housing should look like. This is a guy who repeatedly rails against "modernism", blaming it for "the degradation of our cities".

He attacks modernism for failing to "fit in", and praises the buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries, which presumably didn’t "fit in" when they were built. Going back further, "the enduring legacy of Rome". He’s welcome to his thoughts, but should one philosopher’s ill-informed ramblings really be enough to form government policy?

Scruton has since been replaced as the head of the commission by Nicholas Boys Smith, a slightly weird Tory activist with a bit of a messiah complex and some strange ideas about housing. Generally opposed to the building of more affordable housing, Boys Smith is instead committed, like much of the Conservative party, to removing various planning regulations and giving developers more freedom.

The great tragedy of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, though, is not its unsuitable chairs. It is how much of a missed opportunity it is.

Hundreds of tower blocks around the country are covered in combustible cladding. The Grenfell Inquiry was told 72 people died in a fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 thanks mainly to that cladding. Did this happen because planners don’t have a sufficient respect for beauty? Quite the opposite. The cladding was chosen by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in part because it would make the building more attractive for the tower’s richer neighbours.

The various issues of outsourcing, deregulation and privatisation that led to so many people’s homes being covered in dangerous materials seem far more worthy of a government commission.

Instead, we got Scruton. His sacking, in a ringing endorsement of his work, will have no impact on the commission’s timetable. It remains to be seen whether it will have any impact on its content.

@lukewbarratt