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A room with a not so pleasant view

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Italy is degrading its Bel Paese, and the UK will follow if we relax our planning regulations, says Joseph Rykwert

We tend to think of Bel Paese as a brand of insipid processed cheese, but since Dante first coined the phrase, it has been the Italian circumlocution for their country, like our later ‘green and pleasant land’. Of course, Italian building speculators – and some local governments – have not been slow at depraving it, and now the Italian government seems bent on degrading the bel of their paese still further. Or so think some of the best Italian architects, three of whom, Gae Aulenti and Vittorio Gregotti from Milan and Massimiliano Fuksas from Rome, have signed a protest letter at the proposed relaxation of the country’s planning regulations. Through the high-circulation daily newspaper La Repubblica, they have asked for signatures (they gathered 45,000 in 48 hours) from all those worried by a proposed law that will allow the owner or occupant of a property to enlarge it by 20-30 per cent, without applying for anyone’s permission.

We need a coherent policy agains the despoiling of our surroundings

The relaxation of planning regulations is excused by the current economic crisis, of which the architectural press is as full as the daily papers. Some leaders of the architectural profession in the UK (unlike their Italian colleagues) seem to think that government action in diluting them is needed to ease the pressure of the crisis on employment. That suggestion was already offered in the much-trumpeted Killian Pretty Review, published in 2008, which calls, repetitively and confusingly, for a simplifying of planning applications. Of course, it is a consistent and coherent policy that we need against the despoiling of our surroundings by the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown regimes.

Nor is relaxing planning regulations going to make things much worse. The Italians have their condono, the usually trivial fine given when building/planning regulations have been breached, while we have our very own Certificate of Lawfulness or fine for any breach of the Building Regulations. The Spanish government has notoriously and belatedly applied building regulations on the Costa del Sol and bulldozed some rather nasty villas, some of which (shock! horror!) were owned by British expats.

At home, what we need most is rescuing from the inroads of PFI. Its latest victim is Berthold Lubetkin’s 1938 Finsbury Health Centre in North London – one of the finest British buildings of the 20th century, much loved by locals and users alike, and even defended in the British Medical Journal. The building is about to be sold off to the highest bidder and replaced by a PFI ‘health clinic’. Of course, this does not make any social or financial sense. Fortunately, architects have been at the forefront of the protest and, as I write, the decision has been referred to health secretary Alan Johnson.

But of course, all the kerfuffle need not have happened. We have lost some of our best school buildings to the depredations of PFI, usually on economic grounds. Part of our trouble is the wretched business of VAT on maintenance and repairs, which means that pulling down an existing building can, by a bit of ‘creative accounting’, be shown to be more ‘cost-effective’ than building anew, which carries no such tax-burden. ‘Piloti’ has been banging on about it for years in Private Eye magazine. I am delighted to report that, for once, it is Brussels which has done the right thing and legislated its reduction, at any rate, to 5 per cent.

But back to the Bel Paese. On a Roman walkabout with journalists early last month, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, author of that infamous law, permitted himself an observation in French: ‘Quand le bâtiment va, tout va.’ No, he did not mean, ‘if architecture is fine, then everything is fine’. What he insinuated was, ‘as long as there is lots of building, I’m on top’ – and damn those fancy protesting architects.

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