The planning system finds it difficult to deal with something as subjective as design, given its legal and procedural nature. It is for this reason that the issue of design control regularly blows up.
The current round of controversy was kicked off by Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment chairman Sir Stuart Lipton when he called for a change in planning law to ensure that the practice that designed a scheme could not be replaced by a different firm after permission was granted.
British Property Federation director general Will McKee has said that designs are changed because they are unbuildable and dismisses the problem. As a former chief planning officer he urges local authorities to insist on more detail in planning applications and says they should demand a full application for important schemes. 'You could have a situation where the architects are holding the developers to ransom if you say that architect X is the only person who could come in and do a modification, ' he says. 'The practical problems are immense.'
CABE chief executive Jon Rouse shares the view that existing legislation should be better enforced, rather than taking Lord Rogers' view that new legislation is required. Lord Rogers has called for new laws to make planning permission conditional on the original design being used and cites the unusual example of his practice's Montevetro scheme in Battersea, where John Gummer made his permission conditional on the Richard Rogers Partnership retaining control of the design.
It is projects with high-profile architects, where the designer is changed and the result 'dumbeddown', that come to public notice. But it is common practice for landowners and many property companies - known as 'traders' - to seek a beneficial planning permission so as to cash in by selling the site to a developer or housebuilder. Such companies will make considerable effort to avoid inhibiting the value of the transaction, and so would resist any commitment to their architect being forced onto a potential purchaser.
They will also ensure that the fee they pay their architect includes his or her undertaking to licence their copyright design without further fee to a prospective purchaser.
The consequence of this process is often the same for modest, as well as for high-profile, developments. The relationship and mutual confidence which may have been built up between architect and planning officers fractures with new personalities taking over.
While there is some merit in CABE's official line that there is scope for greater enforcement by planning authorities, there are limitations, both in terms of the powers and of the resources and skills available in many planning authorities.
If a full consent has been granted, and the scheme has been well illustrated, it still remains difficult for an authority to refuse to agree to reserved matter approvals which are broadly within the scope of what has already been permitted. Authorities are mindful that they cannot unreasonably refuse permission. If they do they will be challenged on appeal and may find themselves in difficulty.
There is scope for strengthening the position of planning authorities to encourage planners to treat bold or unexpected schemes with greater confidence by letting them know that they have enough power to enforce the quality architecture.
Fortunately, new legislation may not be necessary to achieve this end.
The original PPG1, the planning guidance which governs the whole of the planning system, made the involvement of an architect or qualified designer a material consideration in the processing or evaluation of a planning application. In the second (current) version, this was watered down, and the reference to 'architect' no longer appears. A new version of PPG1 is in preparation and it seems reasonable that the role of design, urban design and designers will have greater importance when it comes to considering planning applications and appeals.
Understandably the British Property Federation, and the property developers who are its constituency, will howl if they find that the planning permission comes with an architect attached because they know that the difference between a socalled 'trophy' architect and a so-called 'commercial' architect is that the latter will do what he is told!
It seems only reasonable that, if the skill of the architect is what achieves the permission which adds most to the residual land value, then even where the ultimate developer - very often not the original applicant or landowner - seeks to take advantage of such permission, they should either employ that architect or go back to square one.
CABE will publish a report on the subject later this year. In the process it will be gauging whether there are just a few cases where the architects are changed or whether developers (or the development process) are systematically abusing the planning system.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org