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Robert Davis left Westminster in a better condition than he found it

Paul Finch
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In these miserabilist times we need politicians interested in getting things done, not stopping them happening, says Paul Finch

Westminster councillor Robert Davis, who was in charge of planning for many years, is getting a media roasting over the number of lunches and dinners he has accepted from people in the property and design world. These have been registered perfectly properly. The insinuation of impropriety is an absurdity to anyone who knows him. A London developer I spoke to last week invited him to lunch twice in 10 years, but is now made to feel that something faintly improper has taken place.

There was only one real reservation about the councillor and it had nothing to do with lunches. It was that he almost became a one-man planning committee, was therefore more important than professional planning officers (even the excellent chief planner, John Walker), and thus a disrupter of conventional planning procedures.

To all this I say: look at the outcomes. The reality is that Westminster has a far better built environment than it might have done without the political negotiations of Councillor Davis, who has a genuine interest in architecture and the built environment, and who has left the city in a better condition than the one he found it in – the test of a good citizen and a good leader.

In the end he fell foul of nimby politics relating to the Renzo Piano Paddington ‘Pole’ proposal, but bear in mind that the councillor’s chief interest there was to generate funding for a truly heroic improvement scheme for that ghastly station.

At a time when miserabilists continue to oppose anything and everything that fails to conform with their own selfish prejudices, we need politicians interested in getting things done, not stopping them happening. This is particularly the case in the relation to housing in London, where planning refusals come thick and fast, even as the shortage grows more acute.

So I was delighted to see another example of a disruptive process paying dividends, resulting in a planning appeal decision in favour of a major mixed-use residential-led project in Whitechapel, East London, with masterplanners and architects PLP and David Adjaye. London & Newcastle, the client, had the temerity to propose a development including 470 homes and range of amenities.

This was refused planning by Tower Hamlets for the usual litany of reasons, but fundamental was a sense of enclosure, plus loss of daylight and sunlight, for occupiers of neighbouring properties; in addition there would be poor levels of privacy and unacceptable overshadowing. In other words the proposal is an example of dense urban development which is being encouraged in government and GLA policies to address housing shortage in inner London.

There have been many cases where this sort of development has been scuppered in relation to daylight and overlooking factors – but not here. Why? Step forward Gordon Ingram of consultants GIA. He took to the appeal field and used technology developed by Wagstaff as part of their joint VU.CITY programme, presented at the British Council for Offices annual conference last year.

The digital model of London they have developed allows an extraordinary degree of interactivity with interested parties. In this instance, it was possible to show exactly how the future environments would appear, taking into account consented schemes, the difference between views from windows and the effect of light on whole rooms, and comparative examples of overshadowing and light in various parts of London.

It was possible to show exactly how the future environments would appear

The inspector concluded that (a) it should be expected that in inner London a high level of development would take place; (b) that existing residents would be amenable to change; and (c) that they would not necessarily expect existing standards of daylight and sunlight to ‘persist after development’.

Technology has disrupted the phoney world of candles, copies of newspapers, and the fantasy that everyone wants the sun beating down on them through south-facing windows. Change is coming.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Paul is right. Davis has the best interests of Westminster residents at heart ...so long as they were by and large Tory voters. As an officer in Westminster when Robert was chair of the environment subcommittee I was impressed by the way he transformed much of the parks and open spaces. But like most politicians there was a blind spot when it came to opposition voting wards. It’s possible to argue that most of Westminster in those days 1990-2000 was Tory but nevertheless the need to invest in labour wards was at least as high as elsewhere.

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  • Phil Parker

    well said

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  • Hopefully we're not in 'miserabilist times' - especially if the credibility of the fashion for gross distorted lumps and vain 'look at me' architectural rubbish in cities can be challenged, without frightening off innovative design and deadening genuine enterprise.
    And the government drive for austerity is really beginning to draw blood - in the country if less so in London - thus the freedom of politicians to throw public money at personal vanity projects surely deserves robust criticism (and maybe outright condemnation) if we live in a civilised society, rather than one distorted by narcissism, privilege, selfishness and overweening greed.

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