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Architects should welcome this enterprising budget

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Last week’s Budget was invigorating, and the revival of Enterprise Zones may have a mini-Olympic effect

Even for hardened old cynics there was something invigorating about last week’s Budget and associated policy announcements. The welcome news that there is serious thought being given to as-of-right conversion of offices to residential suggests there is someone reading columns like this one.

It is a pity that there is now going to be consultation about the policy when we could have cut to the chase and introduced it, but maybe it won’t take too long.

While they are at it, the people consulted might have a think about whether they would prefer to see residential streets rather than boarded-up shops, an increasingly common condition. Again, a change to the Use Classes Order would be welcome, allowing residential conversion – provided it is reversible if and when times improve.

The second bit of encouragement to growth, which will inevitably provide some work for hard-pressed architects, is the reintroduction of Enterprise Zones (EZs), and the déjà vu appearances of Michael Heseltine as the saviour of the nation.

In general EZs are no bad thing, though some of the claims made for them are ludicrous. For example, you would think that Canary Wharf was the sole result of bypassing all that pesky planning. The reality is that the development worked because of the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money pumped into the Limehouse Link road system, and the Jubilee Line extension. Psychologically, the EZ may have been important but, as recent work by the Centre for Cities has shown, these zones were a very costly way of shunting jobs from one area to another at taxpayer expense.

On the other hand, you have to ask whether anything would have been built at all in the areas given Zone status if nothing had happened. On balance, one has to accept that the idea of a zone lets the development community smell breakfast. Things start to happen. It is a mini-Olympic effect.

The help being given to the house-building sector, and to those unfortunate enough to be seeking a first mortgage, is also welcome, though the time lag involved in getting anything built will be dispiriting. Again, there is a psychological boost in announcing policies based on thinking, which is an encouragement to action rather than inaction.

Of course the growth agenda has to be reconciled to the Localism God, which, before the election, was all about empowering people to take control of where they lived. This has transmuted into empowerment to have a say in where the necessary growth goes, and God help you if you say you don’t want any. Whitehall will let you know what is expected in an old-fashioned centrist way. If you don’t play ball, then developers and house-builders will be able to build whatever they like without any reference to the community, provided it is ‘sustainable’. The organisation charged with deciding if the sustainability criteria have been met, apparently, will be our old friend the local planning authority, provided it has anyone available who is not working on bringing forward the Local Development Framework (LDF).

The LDF, or local plan as simpler folk like to call it, is the great survivor in the shake-up of the planning system. Neighbourhood Plans, the new empowering bit of the system, was wittily described the other day – by someone who knows all about it – as ‘colouring in the local plan’. I think that neatly puts it in context.

Meanwhile, it appears more likely that it will be developers and house-builders who fund these Neighbourhood Plans, to save the community from passing the hat round. The triumph of the supply side, perhaps. It would be nice to think that architects, both as citizens and professionals, will manage to get involved in this process.

But let’s face it, if reformed, the planning system is going to be such a great improvement, and Neighbourhood Plans such a great idea, why do you need Enterprise Zones? This is the sort of cynical question which, as the jargon puts it, is ‘not helpful’.

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