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What on earth is the problem with Islington councillors?

Paul Finch

Paul Finch is dumbfounded by London’s irrational planning and political environment

It may sound a bit parochial to be discussing the replacement of a multi-storey car park in the London Borough of Islington, but bear with me. The building in question is the usual example of an unpleasant, ill-planned and now outrageously expensive piece of architectural junk that is a disfigurement to street, neighbourhood and area. It is doubtful if anyone ever designed it in any meaningful sense.

The only reason I have knowledge of it is because it was very close to the old AJ offices in Clerkenwell, dominating a chunk of the unlovely Farringdon Road, whose immediate saving graces were and are the Betsy Trotwood pub (shades of David Copperfield), the Quality Chop House (‘London’s noted cup of tea’), the trend-setting Eagle gastropub, and the excellent Italian deli Gazzano’s.

Anyone who knew the area was delighted when Sheppard Robson came forward with a mixed-use proposal to replace the dreaded car park, and are now rather baffled as to why the substitute is being given such a hard time. Is this proposal a worse piece of design than others recently approved by the council? Perhaps the planning committee would like to hold a public exhibition of what it has supported in recent years, and what it has turned down, giving a reasoned explanation in all cases. Of course this won’t happen because there will be bleating about resources.

Planning committee members these days expect their officers to do what they are told, rather than offer professional opinions

A good policy to ensure that people understand what is being done in their name, for good or ill, would be to insist that significant proposals that have been approved or refused should be the subject of public exhibition, where the reasons could be spelled out in language that voters could understand. For example, Tower Hamlets council could be invited to explain why it led David Chipperfield and Tracey Emin, for 18 months, down a path that turned out to be a cul-de-sac. This is in respect of a proposal to create a distinctive piece of architecture out of the building where she has lived and worked for long enough to have noticed some of the rubbish that the council has approved, for example a student housing slab-block which has visually blighted the entire neighbourhood.

For some reason there is no sense of irony at work in the minds of planning committee members who, these days, expect their officers to do what they are told, rather than offer professional opinions which in theory should determine the outcome of applications, unless there are compelling reasons to reject them, compelling not meaning ‘I don’t fancy it’.

5278 68 86 farringdon road 2

5278 68 86 farringdon road 2

Sheppard Robson’s rejected proposal for Farringdon Road

It is tempting to see the attitudes of some planning authorities/elected councillors as being determined by an embarrassment about past mistakes, and a desire to punish today’s architects and developers for the sins of those pasts, even where they may have had no involvement. A good example of this is Camden Council in relation to Richard Seifert’s Centre Point building at the eastern end of Tottenham Court Road. It has granted consent for an excellent conversion project, turning offices into apartments – unfortunately eliminating the quasi-public uses of the top two floors as bars and restaurants.

Why didn’t the council insist in the retention of these public uses, if necessary by allowing a few floors of extra height as compensation for the inevitable cost involved? We have the weird situation where the City Corporation, apostles of capitalism, do a better job in promoting the public interest in access to the tops of tall buildings than supposedly people-oriented councils like Camden. This is a topsy-turvy world where rationality and principle, on occasion, seem entirely to have been abandoned.

One can only sympathise with architects and clients trying to achieve rational outcomes in an irrational planning and political environment. How mad do you have to pretend to be in order to make the system work?


Readers' comments (5)

  • The replacement building wouldn't have to be particularly good architecture to improve on the existing, and could this be the basic problem?
    And what if the well respected architect for the new building designs something of debatable quality? Should it get the go-ahead simply because the existing building is rubbish, or simply because the architect has previously created many excellent buildings?

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  • The committee's principal objection to the scheme was that it failed to comply with Council policy with regard to use - the site is zoned for office and housing, with retail at ground - and with a residual concern that we felt the design was poor. 'Clunky' was the word I used in committee.
    Cllr Martin Klute
    Vice chair LBI Planning Committee

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  • Second Cllr Martin Klute's comments above - I attended the planning meeting as a resident (and opposed the application - grounds below). From reading Paul Finch's you'd have no idea that at the rear/side of the proposed development is residential housing. I doubt he would like to live so close to a 180-bed hotel... Design is important but it doesn't trump all - whatever one's view of this particular scheme.

    'I object to this application by Endurance Land on behalf of itself and multi-billion pound Whitbread PLC:
    - it contains no housing, despite the site falling within the Finsbury Local Plan area identified as needing 700 new homes. A Financial Viability Report claims that a minimum 17 and a 1/2% profit-on-cost margin is required to develop the site. This astonishing figure apparently leaves no room for residential. While unwilling to provide permanent homes, Whitbread is happy to take taxpayers' money to house the statutorily homeless, as currently at its Archway Premier Inn. It'd be regrettable, therefore, if planning committee were to be bought off with a minimal S106 payment - and interesting to see how such a sum compares with Whitbread's receipts from renting rooms to the council;
    - the designated Commercial Activities Zone in which the site falls is leading to the hollowing out of the area for new homes, as developers argue for exclusively business and employment schemes - as with nearby 119 Farringdon. The council should be resisting a central London for the better-off only in which the proximity of publicly funded CrossRail is exploited by already-wealthy firms. As a council spokesperson states: 'housing in the borough is under intense pressure with demand vastly outweighing supply';
    - the NPPF 2012 requires - quote - 'positive growth for this and future generations that effectively balances economic, environmental and social progress'. This scheme, like that at 119 Farringdon, makes no 'social' contribution to the area at all.

    Whitbread, with a £2.9 billion revenue-stream to April 2016, can afford a part-housing development. I urge you, therefore, to reject this application in favour of a more socially responsible proposal'. [end]

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  • dominic cox

    Well said Meg. Endurance Land investors include whitbread (kentish town fiasco) and AdamID after Adam Smith, proud to be rich, and Scottish widows, presumably spending some of the cash that fell out of a pension pot.

    So Paul, despite the fact that you do your architectural intelligence an injustice by simply posing a portrait of ‘clean’ and ‘crisp’ (those flesh-crawling adjectives used by Bartlett types) air-conditioned facades stretching monotonously an entire urban block, are you a bit clearer now about why people object to urban rape, greed and social cleansing by aggressive land banks and their architect dinner guests ? you might pop in the archway premier inn for night or two - call it research.

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  • How sad that the bitter and twisted can't find ways to be more constructive. Replacement of a dud multi-storey car park is inherently a good idea. The site is not suitable for housing. And by the way, if 'clunker' is the right word for the proposed design (which I dispute), what word would be appropriate to describe the car park?

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