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Is there any wonder there’s a housing shortage when people like James Brokenshire are in charge?

Paul Finch
  • 5 Comments

In one of his last decisions before being kicked out of office, the housing minister blocked an outstanding development by Studio Egret West, says Paul Finch

Some readers might recall my recent happy experience in respect of the planning inspectorate and a housing scheme by Ian Ritchie, which won approval on appeal, for a scheme on a Metropolitan Open Land site in Bromley (ie London green belt). Christopher Young QC did a brilliant job in focusing minds during the inquiry.

My other not-so-recent inspectorate experience had a very different outcome, despite the fact that the planning inspector backed the project and its high-quality architectural ideas, and that Russell Harris QC did an equally brilliant job in clearing away thickets of obfuscation by objectors.

The Chiswick Curve project, a mixed-use bifurcated tower at the end of Chiswick High Road, designed by Studio Egret West (SEW), would have made a significant contribution to London housing supply.

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative driving on m4

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative driving on m4

Located next to a busy roundabout and the start of the elevated motorway heading to Heathrow, the site had been identified by the local planning authority (Hounslow) as suitable for a tall marker building, in line with a long-term ambition to expand and enhance the ‘Golden Mile’ along the Great West Corridor. The London mayor is backing a 70m-tall development on an adjacent site. There is an extant permission for a so-so 60m-tall building on the appeal site.

Describing the design in context, the inspector noted the positive way architect Christophe Egret had dealt with various challenges: opening up a lively ground plane, allowing movement through the ground floor of the building and linking potential adjacent future development.

Public realm improvements ‘would make it an attractive destination’, he said; locating office space between second and fifth-floor levels would address air quality issues; the cambered elevation reflecting different uses was a ‘clever device’; the individual flats are ‘generous in size and well designed’. The winter gardens ‘are a particularly nice touch, given the difficulties often experienced in balconies in tall buildings. They would, of course, have wonderful views.’

He did not find the proposed height inappropriate. The multi-formed composition of different curved volumes, ‘with a highly sophisticated glazing module, articulated by fins of different colour […] would give the building a dynamism that would make the approach road along the M4, in either direction, a very exciting experience’.

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative peugeot 03 sewedit

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative peugeot 03 sewedit

Having reviewed previous SEW projects and completed buildings, the inspector concluded: ‘The Chiswick Curve is a quite brilliant response to the difficult problems presented by the immediate context of the site.’

If only brilliance were enough. If only Hounslow council understood the design implications of the word ‘marker’, when its policy on all tall buildings is that they must ‘exhibit the highest standards of architectural design’. And, most of all, if only new architecture which can be seen from a conservation area were not assumed to be the equivalent of an assault.

One of the absurdities of the planning system, especially since it involves an abuse of language, is the automatic use of the word ‘harm’ in respect of a proposal which may have ‘impact’ on listed buildings or conservation areas. Why can’t new architecture represent an improvement, completion of or contribution to a skyline view?

The Full Monty heritage brigade went to war on the Chiswick Curve

The Full Monty heritage brigade went to war on the Chiswick Curve and its alleged ‘harm’, even though it had been carefully designed to have minimal or no effect on the most important nearby feature, the Kew Gardens World Heritage Site.

The inspector considered and visited various conservations areas dragged into the argument, and in all cases set the benefits of the project against the mindless assumption that ‘new’ equals ‘harm’.

His final conclusions were unambiguous: ‘In London especially, decision-makers need to strike a balance between the protection of designated heritage assets and the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage Sites, and the need to allow the surrounding land to change and evolve as it has for centuries. In this case […] it is my view that the extensive public benefits the proposal would bring forward are more than sufficient to outweigh the less-than-substantial harm that would be caused to the significance of the various designated heritage assets.’

Moreover, in praising the design as being of ‘the highest architectural quality’, the inspector said he does not subscribe to the view ‘that a proposal that causes harm to the setting and thereby the significance of a designated heritage asset cannot represent good design.

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative entrance view 07

Ew1602 pp chiswick updates illustrative entrance view 07

‘The proposal would bring a massive uplift to the area immediately around it […] In terms of its wider impact, by reason of its height and, more particularly, its design, the proposal would bring a legible hierarchy to the new layer of urban development that will be coming forward in the Great West Corridor.’

This new layer ‘demands an approach that, like the proposal, has verve. I am afraid the council’s more compromising approach, enshrined in emerging policy, would result in a layer of development with little sense of differentiation.’

As if he sensed what might be coming, the inspector noted that, should the secretary of state reach a different conclusion about the level of heritage ‘harm’ that would occur as a result of the proposal, then, of course, he could disagree with the inspector’s conclusion.

The miserable James Brokenshire fell for the heritage lobby’s squeals hook, line and sinker

Surprise, surprise; that is precisely what happened. The miserable James Brokenshire, in his last significant decision before being fired from the Cabinet, fell for the heritage lobby’s squeals hook, line and sinker. Since it would have undermined his decision were he to have accepted the inspector’s findings on design quality, Brokenshire simply disagreed about the architecture being a ‘brilliant response’.

I note that the inspector, Paul Griffiths, is a BArch. Brokenshire isn’t. Brokenshire was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government between 2018 and 2019. He spent much of the period droning on about the importance of delivering more housing, and was responsible for creating the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission on the demonstrably false basis that housing permissions are not forthcoming because of design and style considerations.

In the case of the Chiswick Curve, his decision has blocked a desired landmark development which, in addition to welcome retail, public amenity and workspace, would have provided 327 new homes, 116 of them ‘affordable’.

Incidentally, I gave my evidence in support of the proposal to a public inquiry in July 2018. It took more than a year for Brokenshire to block it.

No wonder we have a housing shortage.

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • It is very sad to see Paul Finch flogging what we hope is a very dead horse that should be finally buried forever - one can but question his motives for doing so now. Is this not-so-subtle PR relating to a further appeal? The Inspector's incredible decision to support this horrendous and very 'bling' design went against the opinion of every stakeholder bar the developer and his team. For once the Secretary of State stood up for London's heritage and for local communities - for this we are grateful. The Chiswick Curve would have damaged forever views from Kew Gardens ( a World Heritage site) and from the river, not to mention a large number of residential Conservation area streets.
    Sad to see that despite the devastation of the dozens of new disastrously bad towers being built across our city, too many that should know better are still not admitting to this crass over-development being a colossal mistake.
    Barbara Weiss Skyline Campaign

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  • Oh dear. There are no angels on the curve. It’s the devil of a site, and someone paid far too much for it, and is now trying to make the usual profit, at the expense of the aged and very conservative locals.

    The planning application by Egret West is not their best. Unfortunately also allows Barbara Weiss to make her usual complaint, this time with a solid justification. Brokenshire didn’t know his arse from his elbow, and Scruton was a wise fellow, but now looks like an old fart.

    The Curve site will be built out one fine day, and it will make a fitting end to Chiswick High Rd, and a transition to Brentford and Kew. It will be similar to the Bosco Verticale in Milan, with vegetation advised by Kew Gardens. The good residents of West London love a planting wall. It keeps them happy, though it does little for pollution or air quality.

    So come on owners of the Curve. Do the offices and flats as a single high tower, covered in interesting and simple to maintain plants. Provide the affordable quotient, get permission and build it. When it’s done, like Brexit, we can all move on to solve other problems.

    Such as:

    Will the Waterman’s move? Can the Police Station be refurbished, to save costs, and provide a mini tower that says Brentford? Will there be a Nando’s? When will Hounslow admit that people still need cars and vans to live and work? Not Grand Designs, but ones that will make Brentford a better place to live.

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  • I agree that there are many mediocre towers built or under construction across London. I happen to think that the Chiswick Curve would be infinitely superior to most of them, which was why I gave evidence at the inquiry. Opponents often question the motives of supporters in a quite personal way; the unimpressive QC for Historic England suggested at the inquiry that I was a 'hired gun'; this was, of course, an exact description of his own role. Happily I do not have to appear at inquiries for a living, and only do so (if asked) when I feel a good architect has produced a worthwhile design -- particularly in respect of housing. I do not know if there will be an appeal against the secretary of state's decision, but if there is I hope it succeeds. The inspector's report is a good one.

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  • The close-up view of the base of the tower doesn't inspire confidence in either the exploding and/or pregnant building or in the culture that thinks it's good architecture.

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  • It looks like a shocking development proposal. It seems that both Barbara and Robert have this one bang to rights. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!

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