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City Revisited

8 August 2020

Planning authorities could hardly have expected a fulsome political defence when some of their number were failing in their statutory duties in respect of the Planning Act 1990 as regards conservation areas.

Lèse majesté when it comes to taking no notice of legitimate objections cuts two ways with gatekeeping bureaucracies.

The first choice political response is to get rid of them or curtail their reach drastically, with the civil service executing the politicians' wishes.

Their only security lies in thoughtfully following the statute. Miss out the law or the thought and they are doomed.

On a visit to a Scandinavian capital that had found 40% of its architects unemployed in a recession I was told that the only way a tall
building got built in the city was for a developer to half build it and go bust, which would always happen, wait some time for the site to be bought by someone else for very little and then completed a decade later.

Being a developer is all about appearing bigger than you are as finances are often on a knife edge.

When insolvency looks like being round the corner that is the time to put in massive, unrealistic planning applications and when the architects will end up never being paid.

To build these schemes would bust the developers if that is not already their fate and everyone should grumble less about unused planning permissions - a great many of them are for horrific or unfinanceable schemes.

Conservation areas make some sacrifices like not being able to install cost reducing solar panels on roofs.

What conservation areas cannot take is the recessionary Scandinavian scenario - bad planning decisions contrary to the 1990 Act executed a decade later by quite other people.

The planning industry's general defence - that 90% of planning applications are approved anyway - condemns it out of its own statement.

It has moved away from providing a fair service to appearing to be a stooge or frightened of those with potentially disappearing finances.

In the likely new scenario where its day to day role will be the protection of certain areas, if a third of planning applications are not rejected first time round, and half of those in conservation areas, to improve them, people will want to know why.

Architects would rather churn out a second, better scheme than not be paid at all.

The economic cycle is what it is. Government can do much to modify it but it will run its course.


December 2020

What is the point of building control if local authorities take building control fees without doing the job? The evidence in the Grenfell enquiry is disturbing. Were the Building Regulations really written so that they would not be enforced?

Local authorities have one last chance to do their fee receiving functions properly and to serve the public.

Otherwise, it will not be hard to push for the functions to be taken away from them in the next legislative round. A precedent has been set in the public health field.

June 2021

With clear widespread failures of some local authorities to provide a service to the public for which they receive fees, to enforce Building Regulations compliance when they are acting in a building control capacity, to themselves comply with the planning acts, to properly address rights of light legislation, to address fire risks fully and to have suitably qualified staff, the government has since moved to remove local authorities' planning authority role for buildings over 18 metres high.

Central government is likely to be more rigorous in hiring suitably qualified staff and not cut corners for fees but the problems still very much subsist for buildings under 18 metres high. This does not look like the end of the road of scrutiny of what local authorities do.


December 2021

Institutions grow old and sometimes need to be put out of their misery, to start anew in order to completely change the governing ethos or the personnel.

Our planning legislation has for 70 years concentrated on protecting certain types of land from development rather than protecting people.

Ways of life sometimes need protecting but at times people are subjected to very rapid change even in a period, as now, when institutions are the better subjects for it.

Do not expect to come out of periods of plague, war or revolution without demise of institutions.

The post-war planning legislation was very understandable.

There was devasted land and bomb sites across the urban and industrial landscape and after wartime and post-war food rationing a need to maximise the availability of agricultural land to feed the nation.

Today we know that modern market gardening can be much more intensive in production and frequently more ecologically diverse than typical open field agriculture. This can be found in many a village adjacent to property, often to the older style cottage properties.

Mixed urban land use can be very productive. Vienna is dotted with vineyards. Newmarket is dotted with training stables.

However, adjacency often leads to classification as valuable development land whilst distant agricultural views are protected.

It is not, however, views that are most critical but quality of life concerns like having sufficient natural light and not bunching dwellings so close together that they shelter canyons of air pollution.

If a village is calling for conservation area status, grant it. If the planning authority pretends to maintain it but undermines it, call it out.

Otherwise, expect it to be swept away to central control or, better still, to new arrangements that give rein to assessment on quality of life and cultural issues.

If an incinerator is proposed by the coast with the prevailing wind out to sea - just possibly it could be permitted depending on the emissions cleaning. If it is in an urban area - a definite no. People are more important than distant views - but why is the incinerator proposed for town in the first place? Because that is the only place land can be found that is already zoned industrial?

More planning legislation continuing the current framework stokes anger about overcrowding. Allocation of development areas, with hidden toll-taking, is not the answer.

The U.K. population has fallen quite substantially in the past year and that is most noticeable in urban areas, even the most economically dynamic.

This gives a period of respite of some years but in that time we need to reassess.



Fishmongers' Hall, London Bridge, November 2021

Adelaide House

St Magnus-the-Martyr

It is a long time since I fought battles to save buildings, subsequently listed, against developers (Farringdon Station) or the Corporation of London (Smithfield Market) in the City or designed anything there but the listed and recently vacated Adelaide House is as important as its neighbours St Magnus-the-Martyr and Fishmongers' Hall in the history of design in the City.

Steel framed and at the same time Art Deco and modernist it was the first skyscraper at 141ft in Britain and stands at a turning point in building technology. It is improbable that the church did not extract a substantial sum from the first owner in its rights of light dispute over the new structure.

This is a financial district, which should have different rules, and where neighbours are well able to negotiate eight figure compensatory sums, but controversially I should like to see a height limit on new structures in London outside financial districts of about this height.

The residents of London benefit little from the taller structures. I once worked in one of the tallest buildings on the flightpath to Heathrow, where most are kept low, and it was horrible being in the only building looking into people's back gardens and swimming pools. Minus it and they would have had privacy.

We have done the tall buildings and there are enough to go round for anyone who wants to work or live in one. Let us now try something different. It could be reviewed again 30 years on. In the sixties we were on course to having elevated ring roads in the middle of London but stopped it all dead.

How high outside a financial district in London? The pictured structure is in a conservation area so no higher than what was there before which makes for a more liveable townscape. But were you to allow twice the height then the land value of the site might be 50% greater. That within limits might be okay but it inevitably pushes up the value of all plots and in a residential area that could mean gardens disappear and new build tends towards high rise flats that only really sell into foreign ownership.

Unlike New York or Paris the charm of London is that it is mainly low rise and not dominated by its road systems, skyscrapers or boulevards. I, too, like the really expensive finish and design experimentation in the City - a financial district - but it is kidding to assert that the same kind of resources are available for use across the rest of London.

London's first skyscraper at 141 feet high

So what height limit? 40 metres (131 ft), 50 metres (164 ft), 60 metres (194 ft).

In the medieval street patterns of the City it is thrilling to see older and shorter office buildings still nestling in beneath the skyscrapers. These towers that you may unexpectedly find yourself at the base of at the next turning, or after slipping down an alley, are great spectacle but, in the residential world, if they were leaving your previously agreeable home permanently in shadow, or backing onto your garden, then they would start to grate and leave you cheesed off.

Other question arise. Why is central government prescribing how many homes local authorities should allow to be built in an area? Why this micro-management? Government by target is so pre-coronavirus. So ancien régime. So fusty. Should it not set conservation-style limits - like the height limit and further protecting rights of light - and let the market manage the rest?

Spied from the Bank intersection the latest tower, One Leadenhall, going up

Should you have a professional advisor who tells you all you need to do is get planning permission they may not be very good (unlikely in the City). There may be rights of lights issues and they could be very expensive.

Generally, it is a good thing that neighbours have rights of light, and air rights, and subterranean rights.

St Mary Woolnoth obtained funds to build numerous suburban churches from selling its crypt for Bank Underground Station. So we repeated the trick the other way around at Aldgate.

Aldgate Station from the rear - the platforms and tracks run below the plaza and road

Some stations are worth listing now because they never got much money for anything other than maintenance. Aldgate was one of four in the City that I had responsibility for. A river had once run to the side of where the tracks ran and the railway had bought the thin strip of land that included it for its original cut-and-cover. So we sold the air rights over it for the building with the rustication, on the left, to go up and the plaza in front of the building is directly above the end of the platforms.