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Clerkenwell Close farce shows design and planning are not indivisible

Paul Finch

Government policy suggests Amin Taha’s building is bad design – despite its winning several awards, says Paul Finch

It is official government policy that ‘good design is indivisible from good planning’. This has become something of a mantra for planning barristers representing local authorities trying to veto perfectly good designs. Their line is that any of their approved planning policies equals good planning, and therefore anything that does not conform with the policy 100 per cent must be bad design. If it were good, it would conform.

This is an Alice in Wonderland world in which words mean what the person using them says they mean – a sure-fire formula for muddled thinking. Let us take one simple example: for many years, Southwark Council had a policy stating that no tall buildings should be developed around London Bridge Station. Then along came the Shard proposal, which was in complete contravention of multiple Southwark policies, including height. Funnily enough, the ‘good’ planning policy turned out to be very divisible from the ‘bad’ design. The planning policy changed and the Shard was approved by Southwark, confirmed on appeal after a public inquiry was demanded by the heritage brigade. 

The council claimed Taha’s project as designed, if submitted today, would not get permission because it does not conform with planning policy

The latest example of muddle is the farce of Islington Council’s bid to get Amin Taha’s award-winning housing and studio scheme, off Clerkenwell Green, demolished. Last week, a level-headed appeal inspector overturned the council enforcement notice. However, the question of indivisibility arose again because the council claimed that the project as designed, if submitted today, would not get permission because it does not conform with planning policy. 

Since the design has already won several architectural awards, it suggests that good design is extremely divisible from good planning, if the latter is what you imagine has been produced by Islington Council past and present. Some of its planning and conservation officers appear more interested in sticking rigidly to their point of view than promoting design excellence in the borough.

There seems to be a fundamentalist attitude on the part of some planners that nobody can do anything unless they have given it a permission. Actually, you can build anything you like on land you control unless there are legal reasons why you should not do so. In practice this usually (though certainly not always) means applying for planning permission for a project of any significance, but the default position is that it is for the planning authority to say why you should not get permission, not for you to prove your innocence, as it were.

That is why there are such howls of disapproval when the subject of permitted development is raised – the priests are being told they are no longer in charge of prayers. In principle, as long as they meet building and fire regs plus minimum space standards, I am in favour of PD projects. It would do everyone a favour if we could transfer matters that have nothing to do with planning (eg those useless cut-and-paste environmental impact statements) to building control. Planners could then go about the proper business of real proactive planning, instead of acting like the warden in Dad’s Army, with his own special mantra: ‘You can’t do that!’ 

I won’t be going on strike

The silly season is enriched by the announcement that the profession is being encouraged to go on strike to support Extinction Rebellion. I look forward to an AJ headline along the lines of ‘Architects strike – nobody notices’. 

A lifetime ago, as a National Union of Journalists ‘father of the chapel’, I fought a recognition dispute which we won, following a ballot conducted by the Electoral Reform Society. In those days trade union activity could result in career jeopardy; sometimes worse.

‘Striking’ architects won’t be risking anything, of course, merely burnishing their virtue signals.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Yes, mostly agreed, but the PD project in Watford where flats WITHOUT windows have been approved on appeal shows just how silly both non-planning and planning can be.
    Incidentally, I am surprised that the AJ has not published this decision, it was in the Planner a couple of weeks back.

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  • An unbelievable decision . . . because the PD policy was imposed without getting proper planning advice. The assumption was that planners would be utterly opposed to the idea, which alas they were. They should have embraced the principle subject to minimum standards.

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