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Planning portal - A war of attrition and gentle persuasion eventually gets things done

As long as you rigorously meet the rulebook, most applications will get planning consent, writes Matthew Lloyd

Our practice has worked for 10 years or so in and around a grid of streets made up of modest houses built for the Victorian working poor near Victoria Park, Hackney. This area has always been characterised as a little down at heel, rescued as it was from slum conditions by the Cass Foundation, a City charity, in the post-war years. We’ve now designed and implemented around 30 projects within this context, including house refurbishments, infill and corner sites, many of them latterly owned by Sanctuary Housing Association. In many ways, we’ve cut our teeth on this ordinary work.

An old industrial building that we called the Bramshaw Workshops was practically the final site in the pack. It had lain derelict and empty for perhaps 25 years, filling the interstitial space between the backs of four streets. Totally landlocked, its necessary redevelopment almost defied a solution. There were just two access points, both through small arches barely large enough to fit a car. We had never worked on such an overlooked, locked-in parcel of land.

The rear gardens of some 40 houses backed on to the site. Had it not been for the fact that the housing association owned most of them, there would have been a maelstrom of party-wall wars. The client initially wanted to adapt the workshops, which were chaotic and asbestos-riddled, for community use, perhaps with training space as befitted the existing planning use class.

The planners were reluctant to accept the challenge of providing access and means of escape to such a high number of potential users. The unsatisfactory and frustrating process of negotiation took years, as befits the slow-grinding cogs of public sector planning in east London. Over the life of our practice, we have come to accept that a gentle war of attrition and persuasion gets things done, if you can afford the time. In the end, having exhausted all options, our client decided the only possibility was to convert the site to residential use.

By breaking the building mass into small parts, we reduced the land occupancy and mitigated problems of access. But how to design affordable family housing when any overlooking to neighbouring buildings was totally unacceptable? Window to window overlooking distances were never above 15 metres, and often less than 10.

The kind of pure innovation that an architect can use if the client is, say, an ambitious young couple open to quirky solutions (bedrooms with smoky windows, living rooms with a blank wall as a view, and so on), would not be accepted by the Registered Social Landlord culture. And anyway, this is not the best way to design good housing for tenants you will never know, drawn from local housing waiting lists, with ordinary and pragmatic needs. How indeed would you create architecture at all in this place?

One thing we have learned working in this east London borough is that, as long as you rigorously follow the rulebook, most applications will get planning consent. Having got planning, we set out to design three courtyard houses that only overlook each other, always working to the absolute minimum legal dimensions. But we made the buildings trapezoidal, a strange but necessary shape that gave rise to the predominant use of multi-tasking zinc cladding, sitting on simple brick bases. 

We were slightly horrified when, after planning permission was granted, the project was given to another architect, JDW Architects of Abergavenny. But we were delighted when we saw the finished scheme: how lovely and how unusual that a following firm had taken our planning drawings and completely understood our original intentions, even within the weighty constraints of social housing.

To me, there is some delight in these simple final forms, and a long-lasting quality in the detailing that befits the pragmatic surroundings. Even the builder said, upon completion: ‘People will be queuing up from here to the Olympic Stadium to live in one of these lovely houses.’

Matthew Lloyd, director, Matthew Lloyd Architects

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