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Everybody loses in the battle of 'community'versus City planners

'There is less to this than meets the eye, ' was one of the late Noel Coward's favourite expressions, and while there is no evidence that he ever applied it to the planning of the City of London, he certainly should have done.

During the past 25 years the Square Mile has been through every planning policy from A to B, and still it can't hit it off with Londoners. Back in the 1980s, when every teenage scribbler knew the City needed aircraft-carrier-sized dealing rooms, City planners put the fate of street vendors, wine bars, the fur trade and muffin men first. Then, in the 1990s, when the bottom fell out of the property market, they announced that they wanted the tallest building in the world - but when the IRA obligingly cleared a site for it, they lost their nerve.

Next came the new millennium and Frankfurt's plan to attack London with hundreds of skyscrapers.

This time the City planners were ready. Their secret weapon was a huge glass egg from the laboratory of Norman Foster, privately guaranteed to 'do a Bilbao for London'. Sure enough, when the photomontages appeared the world went wild. Throwing caution to the wind, the planners hinted that they might say 'yes', but for some reason the scheme was put under house arrest. No one knew what to think until Michael Cassidy, Porsche-driving former policy chairman of the City Corporation, upped and decided to lay down the law.

'There is only one test for allowing planning consent, ' he advised the Evening Standard, 'and that is whether this scheme satisfies the needs of the City as an international financial centre.' At this point the roof fell in. The newspaper's readers accused Cassidy of 'inventing an entirely original concept of planning' (than which no crime could be more heinous), and demanded that the City stump up and rebuild the damaged Baltic Exchange instead, because 'the needs of the City do not override the laws of the land', which clearly put first the interests of 'a magnificent historic building' (for this read 'collection of numbered bits'). Another fine mess you've got us into (you may think). But as we all know, the 'gherkin' sorted it out in the end, even though the planners got away scot free.

Planning has been popular with politicians ever since the first Town and Country Planning Act of 1909. It is the word 'planning'. It seems always to retain its urgency, conjuring up images from H G Wells' Things to Come, in which a wretched old Victorian bombedinto-the-Stone-Age Britain is 'turned around' by a new race of no-nonsense planners until it looks more like the Eiffel Tower on millennium night.

Alas, the performance of real planning, since it was handed over lock, stock and plan chest to the local authorities by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, has not been anywhere near so dramatic. As Professor Seaman noted in his textbook, Post-Victorian Britain: 'Although it (the 1947 act) provided work for town and country planners, relatively little town and country planning took place because they found no satisfactory way of dealing justly both with the owners of land and the community at large.' Seaman wrote this in 1966, at a time when town and country planning was at its most assertive, building motorways, demolishing slums and redeveloping whole districts with gusto.

What would he have made of the pitiful state of mutual incomprehension of the planners of the City of London and the 'community at large' today?

It is as bad as ploughing up gardens because they are in the Green Belt, and ordering the removal of Wendy Houses in the suburbs. No, it is not as bad as that - it is a thousand times worse and much more dangerous.

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