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Knock nothing down, unless it’s physically dangerous

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Planning portal: Localism isn’t creating the homes we need – so let’s try planning-free zones, writes Will Alsop

From previous articles in this series, as well as on-the-street and radio discussions, I hear a general criticism of and disgust with our planning system. Compared with some other countries, our system is not, believe it or not, as arduous as it could be, but it does suffer from a timidity which perhaps does not serve us well.

Often the chronic shortage of housing is followed by pleas for cheaper construction, industrial systems and a relaxation of green belt policies (not a good idea), all of which lead to boring and uncivilised places that eventually create problems of a different kind. To my mind, the worst effect on our environment is buried in the depths of that term, ‘best practice’. This anachronistic phrase assumes that success can be first measured then applied, and there are hundreds of so-called experts, all of whom are paid, who exercise their expertise, resulting in the undesirable combined with the unaffordable.

Q: What do people want and enjoy?

A: What already exists.

I propose that we knock nothing down, unless it’s physically dangerous. Familiarity breeds content, and who are we to disrupt in the name of progress? That ugly building is not so ugly in someone else’s eyes. It contains references, memories and meaning for many people and should be loved, reworked and kept. This is not a heritage mission – it’s a point of humanity.

I propose that planning-free zones should be piloted where additions, extensions and flying buildings could be constructed in any material and style. Only the Building Regulations would apply. In this manner our cities would evolve in an organic way, with greater density achieved. The effect of this urban condition would be a feeling of comfort combined with variation and surprise. The streetscape would become more complex, and English Heritage could relax a little, because everything is protected.

Nostalgia is not one of my favourite emotions, but sadly we must recognise it as an inevitable piece of baggage which guides many of our lives. It represents a measuring device that allows us to evaluate the present. In this sense it is important. The environment that we experience is always being changed, but change in its most destructive form means slash and burn – demolish. This rude removal of people’s memory leads to an eradication of both reference and memory. This destabilisation of the community leads to feelings of insecurity and ultimately bad behaviour, which affects our experiences. Architecture, urbanism and landscape are all about creating quality of experience, and tearing things down disrupts. To knock nothing down and allow change means a different strategy. It is an evolutionary approach that maintains an altered environment without destroying memory.

‘Localism’ is one of the government objectives in planning. This assumes that the community will decide on the shape and future of their locality. ‘More houses’ are also on the government agenda, which means that the communities will have to absorb thousands of houses that locals don’t want because they are afraid of the results they have seen all over the country. Who can blame them?

Local authorities are charged with calculating how much land they control in order to arrive at a number of houses that can be built. This number is often short of the target, which means negotiations with their neighbouring authorities who, because of localism, say no. How do they calculate the number of homes? Is this based on a traditional housing density or volume housebuilders’ preferred option or high rise or …? Too many unanswered questions! If you calculate extensions, over-building and rooftops, end of the garden shed, etc, perhaps the target could be made less daunting.


  • Will Alsop is director of All Design
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