Roger Scruton, the nutty professor of highbrow paleoconservatism (and former New Statesman wine critic) was named chair of a new government commission on beauty in architecture last week, following his contributions to a report published in June on the same subject. As soon as he was announced, the founding editor of the Salisbury Review and man behind the curtain of much conservative thinking over the last 40 years found himself faced, Toby Young-like, with immediate calls to step down based on his long history of comments on date rape, Islam, homosexuality, Judaism and all manner of other things that his version of pickled 18th century Toryism dislikes.
All these comments are good reason for him to go, but very few people seem to have noted how disqualifying his views on the actual matter at hand are: Scruton is also a terrible choice for this commission, or for any commission genuinely interested in dealing with the catastrophic state of housing in this country. The Policy Exchange report from which the commission springs made the argument that if houses were beautiful enough, people wouldn’t object to them being built, thereby ending NIMBYism and solving the housing crisis. It then, though, slipped seamlessly into arguing that “beauty” was the same as “traditional design”, and finished up claiming to prove this by showing a focus group some blurry aerial photos of the Barbican and some nice estate agent shots of Georgian townhouses and asking which one they’d prefer to live in, with predictable results.
This is all – aside from his beloved foxhunting – that Scruton has ever really been interested in. As the author of The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism, his architectural aim has constantly been to get back to a kind of low-key English classicism, the architecture of the age he feels most at home in, and which he therefore considers to be the best, aesthetically and morally (there is a section in The Aesthetics of Architecture in which Scruton furiously condemns a random piece of modernist cutlery and sets out to prove the objective perfection of 18th century fork handles).
Scruton’s ideal style – the style, say, of the 18th century slave plantation mansion in Virginia that Scruton lived in a few years ago when he was based in the US – is the very same style that Prince Charles has been trying to revive in his much-criticised (though not by Scruton, who points to it as the kind of thing he wants to see more of) pet village of Poundbury. This particular project has been criticised not just for its weird toytown feel, but also its remarkably bad building standards, which are a preview of where Scruton’s vision would get us. His report, and his writings on architecture, show no interest in how liveable architecture is, in how the UK has the worst space standards in Europe (and getting worse all the time), in whether, just maybe, the problem is more to do governments of the last 30 years having essentially given up on the idea of council housing. His appointment as Czar of Beauty will be a further opportunity for him to push his dogma-dressed-as-philosophy – but the housing crisis is not going to be solved by requiring local councils to spend their last few quid on putting pediments on their crumbling council blocks.
As it happens, 100 years ago this month, the government published something that addressed all these issues – the Tudor Walters report, the groundbreaking report that demanded “Homes Fit for Heroes” as the First World War came to an end and the government of the day began to tackle slum housing. It made no aesthetic demands, but it established revolutionary standards of space, light and hygiene and compelled local councils to provide subsidised housing meeting those standards, kicking off decades of government-led housebuilding in the UK. If the government really does want to look backwards to solve the crises of architecture and housing in this country, perhaps Tudor Walters’ 1918 is a better model than Roger Scruton’s 1818.
Ben Brock lives in London and works in publishing. He is on twitter as @cinemashoebox.