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Forget X-Factor planning: Architects know best

Architects need to regain their professional status or risk losing ground to ‘local experts’, says Christine Murray

Undoubtedly the biggest story in architecture this week was Prince Charles being indirectly rapped on the knuckles by Mr Justice Vos of the High Court for his ‘unexpected and unwelcome’ intervention in the Chelsea Barracks affair. We can only hope this means he will think twice in future before using his political clout to meddle with architecture.

It’s bad enough that the planning system is governed by the whims and half-formed opinions of its officers; you don’t need to worry about whether the Prince has invited your client’s ruler to tea.

Does this mean the modernists have won the style war? I don’t think we can call this a victory. Rogers’ Chelsea Barracks scheme is still dead, and a plethora of planners around the country are more likely to side with the Prince. The coalition, too, despite its overhaul of the planning system, which began this week, seems to favour the traditionalists.

In the Conservatives’ pre-election housing green paper, they promised local housing trusts would revolutionise planning, allowing the local community to develop what, how, and where they see fit – so long as the development is ‘in keeping’ with the area’s architectural style. Of course, ‘in keeping’ could be interpreted to mean sensitivity to context, but with not a single mention of design quality in the entire green paper on housing, it equally (and most likely) refers to flimsy mock-Tudor and/or Victorian pastiche.

What bothers me most about the unleashing of localism, with its community referendums and power-to-the-people credo, is that it gives credence to the X-Factor brand of television democracy that suggests anyone and everyone has the right and know-how to vote for a masterplan, a building, a design. This, more than the dissolution of the ARB, is undermining the professional status of architects.

Localism suggests it’s best to leave the development of a town in the hands of a random selection of local people. I wouldn’t ask a committee to fix a leaky tap, I’d call a plumber. Architects need to regain their status as the people who know best.

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