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Will King Charles’ Views Continue to Influence the Built Environment?

By Nigel Booen, Director, Design – Boyer (part of Leaders Romans Group)

In his seven decade apprenticeship for the role of monarch, King Charles exerted considerable influence in the fields of architecture and sustainability. It is only in retrospect that we can fully appreciate his influence on the topics that are so current in design today: stewardship, mixed tenure, biophilia and ‘beauty’ to name a few.

With the stalling of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and the possibility that the legislation will never be enacted, the future of planning, design and sustainability is uncertain. Does this pose the ideal opportunity for the King to exert his influence over these, his areas of greatest interest?

In the first days of his reign, Charles committed to a ‘no meddling’ stance. Assuming that this can be maintained, any influence from the monarch will have to be indirect.

At the time of his ascension, many in the industry looked back on this ‘apprenticeship’ and considered the extent of his influence, the consensus being that his considerable output will continue to inspire and influence as he turns his attention elsewhere.

As it happens, the most significant shock to the development world so far during Charles’ reign is the backbench rebellion of Conservative MPs opposed to the development of new homes, which led to the ‘scrapping’ of housing targets and considerable re-writes to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill at the point at which it would have received its third reading. Like or loathe the Duchy of Cornwall’s new communities, Poundbury and Nansledan, and his wider influence on schemes inspired by The Princes Trust’s ideology, one of the principles on which few would disagree is that of co-design and community involvement. Admittedly public consultation is not necessarily a developer’s favourite activity but when engagement elicits support for a scheme, it is of unquestionable benefit.

Perhaps the King’s interest in ‘beauty’ in design is connected to this. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which has many links to The Prince’s Foundation, produced research which ultimately led to ‘beauty’ being described in context of sustainable development in the NPPF. This concept of beauty tends towards the traditional, the easy solution in terms of achieving a consensus, rather than modernist architecture: mock-Georgian as opposed to experimental. Unsurprisingly many architects find this approach retrogressive, but in the context of gaining public support for housebuilding, it certainly serves a purpose. Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis, a fore-runner to the work of the Commission, carried out extensive polling which demonstrated that support for traditional building design was preferred over contemporary architecture in the design of new homes. Across all demographics, a large majority agreed that newly built properties should fit in with their surroundings.  Support was highest, at 79 per cent, in the lower socioeconomic groups and this was used to substantiate the claim that NIMBYism can be overcome if better design reflects people’s desire leaning towards (traditional) building design. The traditional architecture in developments such as Poundbury always popular, both among neighbours (as shown repeatedly in public consultations) and purchasers (as demonstrated by sales prices achieved).

Whether or not we like the design of Poundbury, this experiment in urban planning and community-building shows that there is much that can be learnt from the past, and that we shouldn’t ignore the forms of architecture which have stood the test of time.

The same is true of Charles’ attitude towards sustainability: the idea that looking to the past often provides the best solutions. Net zero heating in new buildings has been a long time coming and there are still obstacles in the way of its total adoption. There is certainly an important role for air source heat pumps and other new technologies, but we should not ignore the ways in which shading, insulation and building layout was used to regulate temperature, centuries ago, in a variety of scenarios – from the thermal insulation of the British long house to shady courtyards of southern European and North African homes.

The future of design and architecture is never more endangered that at times of recession, when viability and affordability take over as enablers of development. However, as King Charles’ work has demonstrated, good design is not a ‘nice to have’ but a vital part of the development process which makes possible other elements – such as sustainable features and community support. As the fuel crisis heightens the need for energy efficient heating and the NIMBY-led political rebellion highlights the need for political support, there has never been a greater need for genuinely good design.