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The Diary of an Anonymous Architect #5

The fifth in a new series about the day-to-day travails of an embattled practitioner. This week: Planning v Democracy

The Village Green Preservation Society : The Kinks

We’ve recently submitted a planning application for a council-owned disposal site and been told the consultation period has had to be extended due to an ‘Internal Admin Error’.

It appears the consultation process has not been carried out correctly leaving any decision open to judicial review. The officer apologised but said it was fundamental that the planning process be ‘as transparent and democratic as possible’.

This got me thinking. What exactly is democratic about the current planning process?

Increasingly the democratic process is kicked into touch through thinly veiled populist political gestures

OK, so planning policy is established through public consultations so it represents a consensus of opinion for the development of communities…. Democratic? Tick. ….

Having interpreted planning policy, individual schemes are then worked up by teams of professional consultants within that democratically adopted policy.….Tick.

Full teams of publicly funded civil servants, including professional planning and design officers, then analyse proposals to ensure that they adhere to the agreed planning policy…. Democratic? Tick. 

The public is then consulted and their comments collected and considered against adopted planning policy. If the scheme, having weighed up responses from statutory consultees, is then deemed to be in accordance with the relevant policy, there’s a recommendation for approval by the publically funded professional planning team for ratification by the planning  Committee. Democratic? Tick. 

So far so good. However, when that recommendation is considered by a committee of publicly elected lay local councilors, increasingly the democratic process is kicked into touch through thinly veiled populist political gestures. Seemingly without any consideration of the process that has gone before. Democratic? Not based on any definition that I have read.

Often the same planning officer who recommended approval is then asked to defend a spurious non-objective refusal

In an attempt to reinstate democracy into the process a client obviously can then appeal against this decision.  As part of the appeal process, often the same planning officer who recommended the project for approval on sound planning grounds, is then asked to defend a spurious non-objective refusal on the basis of the same grounds as it was originally deemed to be acceptable.

Is it any wonder then that in our own office, where we have only ever submitted applications to committee with officer’s recommendations and where we have had to appeal spurious decisions, our clients have also been awarded full costs. Costs that have then had to be reimbursed from the public purse.

In an age of austerity where public funding is being so severely cut what is the point of paying professional members of staff to carry out what has become an administrative role? In addition to these salaries, why spend time and money developing planning policy when it can be so easily dismissed by political whim? A political whim that is so thinly veiled that a Planning Inspectorate, which applies Planning Policy Democratically and Objectively, has to then award needless costs and generate further expense to the public purse and further stall development.

A recent article in the Architects Journal (AJ 22.09.2011) highlighted that planning appeals were on the rise. The argument being made was that the ‘local Planning Authority often does not have the skills or resources to put a sufficiently strong case forward’. This comes in a context where the quality of the design standards of our buildings is declining. 

But how can councils hope to attract highly qualified planning and design officers when weeks of work and their professional opinion is regularly overruled by unqualified lay councilors, looking to score points against political rivals?

On one project we were told by the beleaguered planning officer that, if we could get the local conservation lobby on side, he would support the application and recommend it for approval. If we couldn’t he wouldn’t. Thankfully we achieved both. Yet how can that be democratic?

Where is the benefit in being innovative when the path of least resistance is an outmoded pastiche?

As a result a stealth architecture has emerged designed only to maintain the status quo. This is why the mock Tudor noddy box is so prevalent in our suburbs, why at planning meetings the hard photo realism of the CGI is replaced by the romanticism of the water colour and why the Architect’s role is being usurped by the Copyist Surveyor, who produces facsimiles of the “established” context. For a client, where is the benefit in being innovative when the path of least resistance is an outmoded pastiche? A pastiche that is then poorly adapted to respond to contemporary requirements of housing densities and standards?

If we are to improve the architectural quality of our urban environments and attract stronger design champions into the local authorities, we need to realign the planning system to ensure that a currently wasteful and truly undemocratic system is readdressed. Will a presumption in favour of development achieve this and re-stimulate the flagging economy? Perhaps. 

But perhaps what would be more effective is a legal advisor sitting on each Planning Committee, continually reminding the members of their remit and responsibility to the council tax paying public.

Readers' comments (2)

  • I may have got this wrong but the only democratically elected commentators on the planning application are in fact the lay Councillors.
    They may be "populist", they be aesthetically pig ignorant, they may even be to blame for despoilation of the entire country with appalling little noddy houses made out of ticky-tacky - but they are the only democratic bit of the entire process. Would an undemocratic process guarantee anything better - or might it make tings worse?

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  • John Kellett

    If the government and democracy requires good design, having planning applications judged 'democratically' cannot work. Good design is objective and can only be 'judged' by knowledgable persons. Aesthetics is largely subjective, ought not to be a town-planning issue, and can only be considered by the visually literate (which rules out many democratically elected councillors). Town-planning should be solely concerned with infrastructure, geography and politics to meet the changing needs of society. It should set the brief not dictate the solution.
    The quality of the built environment is too important for decisions to be left entirely to the democratic process.

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