[Mr. Hayes, the Transport Minister] did touch on a problem that is both important and gritty. There is a kind of inequality that few mention in this country — an inequality that is as stark and dispiriting as the rest. Let’s call it aesthetic inequality. Many deprived areas are horribly ugly — and we should take more seriously the effect this has on people’s spirits and lives.
In the debate on poverty, all energy is expended on weighty issues such as welfare, education and housing. The views that frame our lives don’t get a look in. Yet how does it corrode aspirations and limit horizons if everything around you is grey, decrepit, rubbish?
We all have to scuttle through bleak townscapes every now and then. But those with money can more easily buy their way to beauty, to sights that soothe the soul. There are holidays in picture-postcard places, mini-breaks in the countryside, an oasis of Farrow & Ball behind the front door. Pull the ripcord of cash and your parachute will unfurl and take you up, up and away, out of the drab lands, dull office blocks and dismal railway stations.
What if you cannot afford this respite? What if your constant visual diet is the wind-whistling plazas in fifty shades of grey, the corrugated retail warehouses; the blank, depressing faces of municipal buildings; the graffiti and litter; the asphalt and concrete; the brutalism and boxiness? When driving through parts of Wembley, Blackpool, Coventry and Luton, I have raged at the fate of those stuck there without hope of a change of scene, at the thoughtlessness that has condemned them to constant ugliness.
A pile of studies have shown that our surroundings impact on our mental health for good or ill. One recent study found that blank, boxy buildings can cause not just boredom but stress. Urban living is often linked to higher rates of mental illness. We know that green spaces promote wellbeing.People seek out pleasant places because of that osmotic process in which the loveliness around you seeps into your state of mind. “Go to the woods and hills! No tears/ Dim the sweet look that nature wears”, as Longfellow wrote.