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Maintaining urban form means having to keep up appearances

Ian Martin clashes with an old friend

MONDAY. ‘Residents’ are a right pain in the arse, aren’t they? Let’s be honest, ‘residents’ are just a random assortment of people who happen to live in the same area.

But as soon as I submit a planning application to replace a totally nondescript clapped-out Victorian two-storey building with a massive lump of retail space and a stunning 18-storey block of flats – FIVE OF WHICH WILL BE TECHNICALLY ‘AFFORDABLE’ BY THE WAY – suddenly there’s a coherent community with all sorts of shared bloody visions, and some hurtfully expressed reservations about my methodology.

If I had my way local residents’ objections would be admissible only if accompanied by documentary proof that the bastards actually know each other. It is frankly outrageous that a meeting of residents can be called and then HIJACKED for the first quarter of an hour by people simply introducing themselves!

And they call this democracy.

TUESDAY. Plenty to think about today. The so-called residents have now joined forces with the Heritage Brigade.

Embarrassingly, one of the heritage brigadiers is my old friend Dusty Penhaligon the conservationist. We’ve been on opposite sides of the argument before, of course.

There was that Wesleyan chapel I wanted to replace with a big department store shaped like an amoeba. The Edwardian arcade I planned to turn into a ‘boutique vertical village’ and private rare bird sanctuary. And the straggly old almshouses that should have made way for my enormous Museum of Natural Light, a glazed truncheon of aesthetic authority in an otherwise trivial, cowering suburban setting.

In each case Dusty, and the sheer scale of my ambition, and OK, the laws of physics, conspired to bury the scheme. It didn’t stop us shaking hands afterwards and having a pint. This time it’s different. We have more emotional investment. Dusty’s reputation as the man who can stop anything new being built anywhere is at stake. And I’m on points for each non-affordable flat sold.

WEDNESDAY. Lunch with Dusty. ‘Yeah, nothing personal mate but I’m going to be publicly calling your scheme an over-scaled horrendous pile of shit,’ he says, cordially.

‘Oh well,’ I say, ‘It would be a boring old world if we all liked the same things’. I fetch two identical pints from the bar. ‘It’s not just’ he says ‘that it’s big and ugly, cheers. It disrespects the historic area and has a completely non-contextual materials palette…’

We exchange a meaningful glance. What a top bloke Dusty is. He’s obliged to oppose the scheme whatever it looks like. But he’s just satnavved me through the valley of the shadow of death, avoiding traffic black spots and residents.

THURSDAY. Spend the day re-arranging my credentials. I need to make myself more ethical and appealing to those wine-tasting sour-faced bossy cockplungers who’ve emerged as the opinion formers within their new ‘communities’.

Ugh. Must we, craftspeople of epic space, continue to put up with THIS? It seems incredible that in the 21st century professional placemakers can still be stereotyped as disconnected narcissists. Whatever happened to trust? Fine. I’ll dissemble then, if that’s what it takes to mollify Jamie Oliver’s Army.

By teatime my CV includes an organic orphanage, a green hospice and a Bridge of Peace between North and South Korea.

FRIDAY. Residents’ meeting. I reveal the redesign, which omits the 18-storey block of flats. That’s Phase 2, which can always be re-announced if necessary.

The ‘retail space’ I have reduced to two storeys and rebadged as ‘boutique local commercial community shopping with potential for “farmers’ upmarket”. Think potatoes with dirt on and stallholders dressed like Mumford and Sons’.

That goes down well. Then I reveal that the new building will have ‘a classic Victorian form and mass’. The cladding will incorporate a light dusting of genuine 19th century brickdust, recycled from the pulverised building it will seamlessly replace. Honestly, I say, you won’t notice even the tiniest change in the historic landscape.

Plus £50 worth of Ocado vouchers for every household, subject to availability.

There’s a show of hands. All are in favour except Dusty, who surreptitiously gives me a scowl and a wink.

SATURDAY. Pub with Dusty. Drinks are on me, as I’ve just had a cheque from the client’s administrators. I’m a community hero, Dusty’s reputation’s intact. We raise our glasses and toast the plastic arts.

SUNDAY. Take up temporary residence in the recliner.

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