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.
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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’.
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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.
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‘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.