This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Roger Scruton dies • Report reveals extent of PDR office-to-resi schemes • Sadiq Khan stands firm on architect retention • Architecture’s in-house poet
As Thumper’s mother said in Bambi, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all’ – a rule that seems particularly to apply to the recently departed. How then to respond to the death of ‘conservative’ philosopher Roger Scruton, who has died from cancer aged 75?
Scruton made headlines in the architectural media just over a year ago when he was appointed to chair the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This was met with derision by many in the profession because of his long-standing traditionalist views on architecture, exacerbated by his rather unliberal views on a range of other subjects.
Rather strangely, housing secretary James Brokenshire sacked him from the commission following an interview with the New Statesman where he expressed some of these non-architectural views – despite them being entirely consistent with well-reported previous utterances – then reinstated him when the full transcript of the New Statesman interview revealed these remarks to have been taken out of context.
His obituaries suggest he was both an academically respected philosopher and a wilful contrarian who delighted in challenging the liberal consensus.
Shortly before his original dismissal, the AJ’s Rupert Bickersteth joined Scruton on an architectural tour of Stratford’s modern housing developments. Bickersteth found him surprisingly ill-informed about many aspects of housing, but nevertheless very charming – comparing him to his own right-wing grandfather – and possibly broader minded than he liked to come across. Scruton was full of praise for a Peter Barber housing scheme that hardly ticked the traditionalist boxes.
Memorably, Bickersteth wrote of their chat about Bethnal Green, where Scruton had lived in his younger days, ‘going to the pub where there’d invariably be a man in a dress who would require someone to play the piano and that someone would be a young Scruton, apparently’.
The final report from Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission still awaits publication, but will it have any effect on what is built?
The draft report suggested local councils name and shame ugly schemes they had turned down. Yet councils have been stripped of the right to reject some of the worst offenders: office-to-resi schemes that are allowed to bypass the planning process through the notorious permitted developments rights (PDR) rules.
New research by the Local Government Association (LGA) showed that since the rules were introduced in 2015, 54,000 homes have been created from old office blocks through PDR – accounting for more than half the new homes developed in Harlow, Essex, last year. Other areas with particularly high proportions of PDR conversions include Norwich and Slough.
One of the Harlow schemes, Terminus House, was the subject of a BBC investigation last April, which revealed the squalid and cramped living conditions inside the 14-storey former office block.
The LGA report also points to another side effect of permitted development rights: because they bypass the planning process, councils are unable to impose Section 106 agreements which, otherwise, would stipulate provision of affordable housing. The research suggests that, as a result, more than 13,500 affordable homes have not been built.
Former Labour housing minister Nick Raynsford has also weighed in, saying the policy has ‘led directly to the creation of slum housing’. Current minister Esther McVey begs to differ, lauding the number of homes created under the system and saying the government was looking to extend PDR.
However, a departmental review is looking at the quality of the homes delivered and is due to complete shortly. It’s hard to imagine it can do anything but conclude that the quality is severely wanting. On the other hand, it was launched by Brokenshire, who also set up Scruton’s commission. The current ministerial personnel may not share Brokenshire’s concerns.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has resisted pressure to drop architect-retention clauses from the London Plan.
The clauses are intended to ensure design quality of projects by insisting the same architects are used from start to finish. Such a measure can prevent developers from dropping the original architect after their design has won planning permission – often replacing them with someone cheaper and/or less stringent about retaining quality.
The London plan proposes allowing local councils to use ‘architect-retention clauses in legal agreements where appropriate’. But the government planning inspector called for this to be deleted from the plan because is it ‘overly onerous’ for developers. Khan has, however, ignored this advice.
When the draft London Plan was published in November 2017, the retention clause provision was welcomed by many architects, including then RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, who said the institute was delighted to note the provision of design continuity in the development process’.
The clauses have also been welcomed by Public Practice, the organisation that places architects in London planning departments. Co-founder Finn Williams pointed to the case of Conran & Partners’ redevelopment of Baylis Old School into mixed-tenure housing – which won notoriety for excluding children from the social housing from using a communal playground within the scheme.
Conrans said its design – approved by Lambeth Council – featured play areas that were accessible by all residents. Williams said this highlighted the risks of not maintaining the original design intent from consent right through to completion and showed ‘the limits of architects’ power to deliver real quality if cut out of the process’.
Poll: Do you welcome architect-retention clauses?
• Yes, they should be allowed
• Yes, they should be compulsory
Lionheart 52 a coleman
Want to make the staff at your practice feel a whole lot better? I mean,working conditions and avoiding onerous hours are all well and good, but can you truly say you’re taking care of your human resources if you haven’t hired an in-house poet?
Rhael Cape, a former architecture student who goes by the professional name of LionHeart, seems to have this gig pretty much sewn up at the moment. He has taken his talents to, among others, PLP Architects, Squire & Partners and Grimshaw, where he recently completed a year-long residency.
LionHeart isn’t simply tossing off hagiographic paeans to architect’s latest completed buildings; he’s going somewhere deeper. His approach is to interview architects individually, and then write a poem inspired by their discussion. His preference is to then perform the work in public, though he will email the results if the architect has a more introverted bent.
His starting point is to ask his interview subjects what interests them about architecture or what their favourite childhood building was. He finds that the process leads to people opening up about their emotions – ‘a lot of people break down’ – with the creative exchange becoming a cathartic process.
‘I’ve noticed that within architecture there is a hyper sense of practicality,’ he says. ‘Everyone is suffering silently … Some firms require you to leave your emotions at the door … I didn’t realise how much poetry is needed in architecture.’
Read Ella Jessel’s interview, with examples of LionHeart’s work here.