June 4, 2014
Just over twelve months ago, the Common Weal project began to imagine that if Scotland could be redesigned, how would it look? The idea encouraged a wide range of people to contribute over 50 papers on different aspects of the broad theme. Today, these ideas have been published in one book – Common Weal. Practical Idealism for Scotland. Well written and comprehensive, there is a common thread running through the lot. Here’s one written by architect Malcolm Fraser on the built environment. Like the LRRG on land, Malcolm views the built environment as a precious resource.
The built environment provides the places and spaces in which we are more-or-less happy, more-or-less creative and more-or-less economically-effective. A proper measure of the “more”, rather than the “less”, is the amount of amenity, or utility, a built environment offers us: the nearby parks, schools and shops, it’s connectivity via a nice, easy route to work or by good access to its public buildings, how it allows and encourages the ways we creatively interact with each other from park bench to great places of public assembly, and how all relate to nature and sunshine.
How we achieve such a simple, focused vision, intersects with the general aims of the Common Weal, for a fairer, more open society:
Democracy and the Common Weal : whatever our digital future the delivery of services, from public to private or commercial (Town Hall and libraries to ordinary offices and shops) will always have a physical component for we are social animals and work and play best when we come together. In planning our built environment we must not forget that not all have access to a car.
First and foremost, we need to regain confidence in the idea of public services, and the fairness and efficiency of how the open, democratic state can deliver them. Thereafter, a democratic right for all to have easy access to the physical manifestations of these services, as well as to complimentary commercial ones, would see them fortified in their existing, town centre locations under the Town Centre first principle, where public transport goes, rather than dispersed out-of-town, where the car owner gets stuck in traffic.
Alongside this, the Common Weal’s proposals for reinvigorating democracy would see the revival of the missing, local level, of parish, community or whatever councils that would care for their immediate communities, providing a balance to larger authorities which might be reorganised around the 14 Health Board areas. Alongside this is land reform, with the rights of communities to access and own land and buildings in common, underpinned by a Land Registry that makes all ownership clear.
The Built Environment as Precious Resource : the urgency of resource-depletion and man-made climate change must make an end to cycles of demolition and new build, and abandoning old towns for new. The Town Centre first policy helps re-nucleate our atomised built environment, drawing it together so we can walk in it, or access it by public transport.
And just as we need to renew, not abandon, our old towns, building joyful new buildings alongside their old ones, so we need to joyfully-renew old buildings, finding appropriate uses for them rather than condemning their often sturdy fabric to landfill sites. To do this we also need to level our absurd VAT regime, that taxes renewal at 20% and rewards demolition and newbuild with a zero or 5% rate. Such a policy, with a flat rate of 5%, has been shown to promote regeneration, increase the supply of homes by encouraging empty homes back into use at the hearts of their communities, reduce the black economy and increase employment – repair being more labour, and less resource, intensive. A wee magic bullet for society.
A Utilitarian Planning System : delivering all this would be a radically-revised Planning System, which would answer the question “why does society build?” by putting utility at its heart : hospitals that use light, fresh air and access to nature to promote healing, homes and communities built round sunshine and shared space, offices focussed on creative working environments and schools on light, playspace and their location in their communities, for instance; and villages, towns and cities focussed on parks, walking and shared space.