Guest Blog

Is beauty in the eye of the controller?

A senior leader in housing development argues that beautiful streets matter too but highways officials and budgets are blocking them

Michael Gove MP said last year that he wants new buildings to be more beautiful. However all too often streets get wrapped up into ‘placemaking’ rather than dealt with as a separate space that needs careful thought and curation. Yes, we have Manual for Streets and yes, we have beautiful modelling that works out the widths of roads and circumferences of junctions but where in any code for Highways consultants and local authority transport engineers does it say ‘make the street beautiful’. Safe yes (obviously) but never beautiful.

Historically in the UK and in cities and towns across Europe streets are often described as beautiful. It’s hard to find a new street that has been described with any such positive passion – yes nice use of materials, clearly tidy curb stones, possibly good visibility but nothing to make the heart race with delight. So where did we go wrong?

Developers are often blamed for not creating beautiful new developments because of their bottom line but has anyone really ever queried the bottom line of over stretched Highways departments up and down the country. Transport engineers who set out to work in local government to deliver better who have been worn down into delivering what a list of rules and regulations require them to do who seek the safest road design from developers building new estates (again obviously) who control the whole process through long discussions, s278 agreements and legal documents. And together, either with a pressure to submit a planning application or these very drawn-out conversations post planning permission is it any surprise we continue to perpetuate safe and functional with little discussion on beautiful. For at these very moments for the developer, the clock is ticking, applications are due in, and the developer needs the support of the Highways team or if post permission, the site purchase has likely to have been triggered and the developer just needs to get on site.

So, after reviewing the plans for safety (obviously) the next filter is cost. Not the initial cost (capital) as this, on the whole, is covered by the developer but it’s the filter of on-going maintenance cost (revenue costs). With no additional funding available the next thing driving design discussions is how much will it cost the highways department to manage and replace. It’s not always overtly discussed but it’s there….tarmac verses trees, tarmac verses grass, tarmac verses gravel. The developer also is unlikely to have considered these additional costs as once adopted, the highways are no longer their responsibility. For those who do care – even payment discussions are dismissed (the fear being that the money will eventually run out). One extreme example was a boulevard of trees being rejected by the person who repaired traffic lights and in particular, the coil in the road. Every ten years or so there is a need to divert the traffic over the centre reservation to replace the coil in the tarmac. So after months of discussion with everyone it was thought in the highways department it came down to the need to accommodate two days of work every ten years… or so. The question is asked, ‘so are you willing to give up the trees so we can support the planning application?’. Eyes left to transport consultant and a look of no choice. And that was that. ‘For an extra £50/sq m you could have golden pea gravel’. Beautiful in the eyes of the traffic light controller.

The author, who is writing anonymously as she needs to get highways sign off, is a frustrated senior leader working in housing development