Architect-turned-developer Roger Zogolovitch, the man behind the winner of the AJ's First Building Award, wants to revolutionise London's planning system
When Roger Zogolovitch proposes revisions to the planning system, he knows, to coin a phrase, whereof he speaks. His little development at Centaur Street, designed by de Rijke Marsh Morgan, hard against the viaduct leading out of Waterloo Station and winner of this year's AJ First Building Award, took three years and three separate planning applications to obtain a viable consent. Overcoming such hurdles on a site of only 400 square metres, which the local authority itself had laid bare, required 'bloody-mindedness' rather than mere commercial ambition, as if he had a greater point to prove.
It is this point that he thrashed out with AHMM's Simon Allford in a recent lecture.
Essentially they argue for the creation of 'densification areas', a sort of parallel to conservation areas, where infrastructure and transport links make higher densities viable.
He expands: 'In a contemporary society, [land] has a very particular relationship to infrastructure. In those parts of the city that are well served by infrastructure, we should be intensifying [use], maximising the capacity of that land to carry people.' By redefining and extending the existing provisions for 'permitted development', building owners might have the right to increase their heights to, say, 18 metres, without the need for planning consent. This would instantly create a whole slew of small sites - he cites around 150 square metres ground area - mainly in inner city areas where people, he says, want to live. 'The community that lives in these areas could push their own ideas.'
Behind the idea lies the perception that London is 'a developer-led city', unlike most 'European cities, which are plan-led'.
The 1947 planning settlement acted 'to constrain the developer' with laudable aims rooted in public health. But those necessities no longer pertain: instead of the 'scraping of guts and cleaning of fish what we have now is B1 activity, which doesn't create dirt, noise or soot'. Even where planning does not impose anachronistic separations, it imposes densities 'based on rural guidelines', which 'do not exist in the existing building stock' of inner cities. Resulting in a shortage of land, which forces prices up, the effect is to throttle rather than constrain developers, and therefore to emasculate the force by which London has 'always managed to reinvent itself '.
In essence, Zogolovitch's proposal seeks to realign regulation with opportunity. The precedents of deregulation of office space in Docklands, followed by the response from the City, prove 'that you must use the tool of deregulation' to achieve a greater supply, and therefore lower prices, for what he sees as an amalgamation of B1 and residential space. 'What are the environmental grounds for not allowing those two uses to fold into each other?' he asks, especially as more and more people work at home anyway. But in some ways the precedent goes back much further, to the 18th-century explosion of London, where the methods adopted by the great estates fitted perfectly with the capabilities of the finance and construction industries of the time - they required little capital up front and could be parcelled into small lots that individual craftsmen could manage on their own.
Zogolovitch explains: 'If you examine the real urban grain of London, you find the great estates, but also those areas where the railway line carves through, or where there was a factory, ' and developing these small-scale sites falls within the compass of individuals or small organisations.
At a stroke that takes some supply out of the hands of the volume housebuilders, and places opportunities in the hands of architects, because developing these sites requires imagination.
Emphasising this point, Zogolovitch says: 'I like working next to railways. They are very good neighbours and once you overcome the technical issues [of vibration and sound], which I do by building in concrete, you could produce a series of towers alongside a railway.' Teaching a course on infrastructure at the LSE's Cities Programme has given some theoretical base to what he already knew empirically. He once proposed 'an entirely beautiful symmetrical, hanging, circular cathedral-like space' under the M40/A41M intersection. At a micro scale, he describes Centaur Street as 'an experiment in creating an oasis within a hostile environment'.Using a three-dimensional volume to create split levels within the apartments, the design, he explains, 'fools the perception of space - forcing the mind and brain to work harder becomes pleasurable' and makes something 'to retire to', just as people used to find respite by distance - ie going to the suburbs - rather than design.
And he delights that the design 'comes out of a London tradition'.
Everyone seems to agree that the supply of housing must be increased. But, argues Zogolovitch, at present everything is against it. The planning system 'defaults to saying 'no development'', while a scheme he is proposing near Tate Modern is falling foul of Southwark's doctrine of keeping employment in the area. And then there is the social housing provision. Delhi, he mischievously suggests, addresses such issues with a requirement that private residential developments have to include space for servants, creating employment and subsidised housing, though London might not be quite ready for such enlightenment.
Zogolovitch's proposals go to the RIBA Council today, October 16, and, if approved, will land on the desk of Kate Barker, who is conducting a review of the planning process on behalf of the Treasury. Their concern, he explains, 'is that inflation of house prices in a period of very low inflation is dangerous and destabilising to the management of the economy'. The ODPM and its predecessors may have responded correctly by looking at brownfield development and using the Thames Gateway, but those inevitably take a long time to feed through. His proposals, believes Zogolovitch, will free up London's natural dynamism and unleash them on its biggest problem.