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Westminster 'sells' Pimlico permission, ignoring udp

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Westminster planners have told developers bidding to demolish and replace Pimlico School that they must try harder on the design of a seven-storey block of 169 luxury flats on the site, as well as on the scheme's access for the disabled, its impact on car parking in the area and landscaping. But in the planning officer's report, set to be presented to the council's committee meeting tonight, they have given the thumbs-up to the scheme's residential density - despite this being a staggering 900 habitable rooms per hectare, almost double that allowed in the area's udp.

The planning officer's report recommends 'acceptance in principle' of the proposed Ellis Williams-designed replacement school's height, bulk and design, and the height of the accompanying residential development, subject to revisions of the 'too-steep' 90degrees roof slopes. But, despite density controls set out in the borough's udp of 247-494 habitable rooms per hectare, and a ruling in the planning brief that the inclusion of family housing means that densities should be at the lower end of the scale, the planners ignored their own land use planning rules because of the financial implications.

'With the current application any significant reduction in density would decrease the value of the residential land and compromise the achievement of the primary objective of providing the new school,' says the report by Peter Rogers, the acting director of environment and planning. He considers 'the need to achieve the overriding planning benefit of the new school' enough to bend the density rules and accept levels 3.6 times higher than the appropriate lower limit. In contrast, the previous director, Tony Lear, reported the scheme to be 'an over-intensive development of the site' but left the council mysteriously in early December last year.

Original architect of the school John Bancroft said: 'We're dealing with town planners turned estate agents. Planning, it seems to me, has nothing to do with land values.'

Ken Powell, director of the Twentieth Century Society which has called for a planning inquiry on the thorny issue, said : 'This undermines their ability as professionals and it's turning on its head the planning brief. They're twisting the planning system to achieve a political objective.'

The rtpi's director of public affairs, David Rose, defended the way planners have a 'trade-off' and claimed that it was not bad practice. But he acepted that Westminster 'was hardly a flagship for putting planning at the centre of its activities.' And he thought the borough's attitudes were 'managerially, rather than professionally, led'.

Elsewhere in the report the planners feel the design of the residential - initially 'modern', like the school, then altered to become 'Cubitt- style' - is 'mean and unresolved and monotonous' because of the architect's 'reluctance to produce a scholarly copy of nineteenth century Greek/Roman style'. They conclude that the applicant should revise the designs - to demonstrate a commitment to 'scholarly replication of nineteenth-century details and a richness and quality of detailing on both the front and rear elevations which is wholly lacking from the current design.'

The planners also admit to being seriously concerned about the loss of 19 plane trees, again contrary to the planning brief. Even the Metropolitan Police are among the 360-plus objectors to the pfi 'pathfinder' proposal, saying that the flats would result in 'an environment in which people and property would be vulnerable to crime and which could give rise to fear of crime'.

And the Royal Fine Art Commission this week criticised the council for not seeking retention of the school and the panned scheme for 'unacceptably high density of housing'. Lord St John of Fawsley wrote: 'without the investigation of alternative possibilities, the commission is not prepared to endorse this design as a suitable replacement for the existing development.'

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