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How beauty shapes our fates The aesthetics of where we live are essential to human flourishing

Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty

June 21, 2019   5 mins

Inequality is arguably the most contentious issue of our time, alienating citizens from governments as well as one from another. The public debates place too much emphasis on disparities in income, to the exclusion of equally important forms of inequality. In this week’s series, our contributors explore some of the other inequalities tearing our society apart.


The single most successful indicator of how your life will turn out is the postcode of the area in which you’re born. It’s what the Greeks called ‘fate’. Combine that with your mother’s level of education and you have one of the best indicators of the quality of your life, the time of your death and all that happens in between.

That’s why reversing the penalty of place is the first order of battle in the war against inequality. The primary policy interventions in this regard have usually been around education and infrastructure: if there are no job opportunities in a deprived area, link it with road or rail to one where prospects are better. Similarly, drive up educational standards via an inspection or insistence regime.

These are all strategies of escape however, focusing on social mobility rather than locational improvement. As such, the cost of each success is passed on to those who are left behind, as young people are shunted off to university or to a London-based career, and rarely return home. Very little of our public policy is aimed at benefiting those who stay, which only further deepens the need for escape.

Take health for example. Life expectancy among males in Blackpool is the lowest in England – lower by an average of around 5.4 years. But even within Blackpool, it can vary: male life expectancy ranges from 65.8 years in the Bloomfield ward, one of the most unhealthy places in Britain, to 78.8 years in Stanley – a difference of 13 years.

Yes, there are new NHS initiatives that aim to address the chronic ill-health faced by those born in Blackpool as opposed to, say, Richmond. But until we devolve healthcare to local authorities rather than the NHS, there is zero chance that the NHS can meet such goals. And absent the end of austerity, state services are simply too underfunded and too risk averse to truly change the (predominately poor) lives who exclusively rely upon them.

Why not then try to improve the areas where people actually live, rather than urging those who can to leave for somewhere better, so that people don’t necessarily want or need to leave? Some policies have potential, and city or county devolution (and possibly industrial strategy too) may eventually bear fruit. Yet there is an additional remedy at hand that may prove more effective at distributing opportunity than other more expensive or ambitious measures – beauty.

Beauty is a pretty good proxy for much of what people really value and want for the areas in which they live. In almost every local authority survey, people ask for three things. They want their neighbourhood to be clean, safe and to have access to greenery. Beauty covers all three requests. The Local Government Select Committee points out that: “…the most affluent 20 per cent of wards in England have five times the amount of green space as the most deprived 10 per cent”.

So beauty is already unequally distributed by class as a 2015 report by ResPublica “Community Right to Beauty’” shows in its case for the democratisation of beauty. It notes that “only 45% of people in social rented property felt that they have access to beautiful places,” as opposed to 57% among homeowners and that “46% of people surveyed felt they had little or no access to beauty”.

In a fascinating study from 2010, Ipsos Mori found that “There was something of an ‘unspoken assumption” that “beauty is for everyone and not something you can deny someone, no matter their social standing, age, health”. In this study, beauty is seen as more of a right than a luxury, with an astonishing 81% believing beauty should be something that all have equal access too.

Yet not all do, largely because beauty predominantly attracts the middle classes. Unless the poor are afforded beauty through social housing, they soon find themselves crowded out of such areas. Just about the clearest evidence for this is the effect of beauty on property prices. Simply put, the more beautiful a house, the closer it is to listed buildings or areas of great beauty, the more expensive it is.

Analysis from 2005 produced by Nationwide calculated that, compared to property built in the post-war period (1945-1959), prices for homes built before 1900 were 8-34% higher, while the more poorly designed properties of the Sixties and Seventies sold at a discount. Moreover, as Create Streets points out, a home closer than average to a listed building in London is worth 10.3% (or £49,770) more than one that isn’t.

The emphasis here is on the cost of poor design. Most (though not all) of mass-produced housing in the 1960s or 70s (and too much of our current production) is ugly and poorly designed. You might argue that in a trade-off between price and beauty, it is better to favour utilitarian brutalism, because at least it can house the poor at scale. The trouble is that if you ghettoise the poor and separate them from the more economically active middle class, you compound their disadvantage – as well as increase the demands they place on the state. It is a false economy as well as an immoral one.

I know of no better way, after 10 years in policy, to help the working class than to mix their lives and fates with the middle class. House them differently, make their areas ugly and inhospitable, and you wall them off from opportunity and transformation. And of course, costing in these wider ‘externalities’ is a complex exercise. There are areas especially in London which are both ugly and prosperous, because their proximity to centres of economic opportunity offsets a less than ideally built environment.

So, if beauty is not to be solely colonised by the prosperous, especially in areas of high demand, what should we do?

First and foremost, we need land value capture in all new development build, and we need to use that captured value to purchase land at close to an agricultural price. A universal fund could finance mass beautification using this captured uplift in values and the savings generated by taking conflict out of the planning system.

We also need a cooperative not an adversarial process that empowers local people and invests in high quality design.

Those who dismiss beauty as a prerequisite for the good life are prone to argue that beauty is only subjective, but subjective definitions are what govern most public policy debates. Rather than focusing on making neighbourhoods upwardly mobile, we should be making residents more inwardly mobile. In short, we need to take beauty seriously.

The Greeks understood ‘fate’ to mean the law that sets in motion our lives from birth, which brings us to another Greek word – kosmos, meaning ‘the order of things’. It’s from this that we also get the word ‘cosmetic’. Perhaps if we saw beauty as more than skin-deep – as something universal and essential to human flourishment – we might learn to appreciate the true cost of ugliness.

To read the rest of the Riven Britain series, click here.

Phillip Blond is Director of UK think tank Respublica and author of the book Red Tory.


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