It is possible within the existing planning system to take steps that make it more likely buildings will be delivered as designed, says Paul Finch
The AJ’s excellent feature last week on the reduction or elimination of design quality once the architect has achieved a planning permission, was a necessary reminder of what appears to be a chronic condition.
In 2003 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment published Design Quality in Planning as a response to genuine concerns that a combination of cynical clients, self-interested so-called value engineers and jackal executive architects were deliberately reducing the quality and integrity of successful designs produced by others.
Since the dozy coalition government and its hopeless architecture minister eliminated Cabe, the only body capable of not just producing such a report but getting ministers to pay attention to it, there seems little current chance of the document being updated to take account of legislative changes.
Architects often talk of planners as the enemy, but they can be useful allies in the war on dumbing-down
However, its general message holds good: that it is possible within the existing planning system to take steps that make it more likely (not guaranteed) that buildings will be delivered as designed. Admittedly this takes not just commitment but also a greater level of detailed monitoring than may be considered appropriate given current financial circumstances, but then planning fees are there to take care of that sort of thing. I do hope they are not being frittered away on non-planning matters.
That Cabe report, as a public document, is available via the National Archive – just Google the title. It still reads pretty well, and ought to be a reference for young planners worried about the apparent diminution of powers and responsibilities. In reality it is perfectly possible for the system to deal with the dumbing-down question without any fresh legislation, just the bringing of pressure to bear.
One obvious area is details and materials, which can of course be conditioned. Despite the fact that architects often talk as though planners in general are the enemy, in reality they can be useful allies in the war on dumbing-down. There comes a point when it is not worth a client’s while to change the architect when so much is already set in stone, and not worth the contractor doing his best to make things worse.
Incidentally, here is a comment by the late great engineer, Peter Rice, when asked his opinion of value engineering: ‘It has nothing to do with value, and f— all to do with engineering.’
The idea that anything creative or playful has no value is the stock-in-trade of the dullards who produce dismal environments because better ones ‘don’t stack up’, when what they really mean is that they can’t afford to do a proper scheme because they paid too much for the site. They love forcing architects to rebid on work they have already designed, on projects they fully understand, in order to save a minute amount on fees by substituting someone worse.
I would love to see a truly vigorous campaign by the RIBA to fight for changes in legislation that would make dumbing-down far more difficult, and would make architecture itself a critical element in the planning process, rather than it being a necessary but ditchable element used to create a trading commodity, ie the permission. It is probably not possible to insist the original architect completes the work because the site may be sold, but we could do an awful lot more to deter the cheapskate behaviour of some clients in this area.
Surprisingly, the opponents of tall buildings have not made much of this issue, but perhaps they are too busy with the footling campaign against Renzo Piano’s revised Paddington Station development, an elegant 18-storey office cube, which will generate more than £60 million towards improvements at the station. Some people are never satisfied.