A pity Richard Desmond did not follow the late Tony Pidgley’s footwork when trying to double the size on his now-notorious scheme for 1,500 flats at Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs – if only to understand how Berkeley got permission to build 1,280 flats on a plot one third the size of Desmond’s, on land just 700 metres to the north. 

Peter Bill

Peter Bill

Or maybe to learn how ‘Uncle Tony’ added 25% more units to phase three at Kidbrooke Village, in south-east London. The much-mourned master of London development seemed to tap-dance across the planning stage like Fred Astaire. Desmond? More punk in a mosh pit.

Pidgley was adept at topping up the units once permission was granted. “You would be amazed how easy it is to add a few more storeys,” he told me once. “The councillors get fed up. When you go back for more, the fight’s generally gone out of ‘em.” Not quite that easy. The now built 68-storey South Quay tower had a few floors clipped. Kidbrooke is an area where nothing above 10 floors lies on the near-horizon. Berkeley suggested a 31-storey tower post-planning. They were forced to step it down to 21 storeys. Even so, an extra 255 units were added to the original 983 units. How do you split the spoils from selling extra flats with no land costs? “If the other side don’t ask, they don’t get,” he grinned, referring to overage agreements in general, not those at Kidbrooke.

Pidgley was adept at topping up the units once permission was granted

Pidgley quietly courted those with the power to block his plans – local councillors, community leaders. Richard Desmond courted Boris when he was mayor, rather than Tower Hamlets Council. Being photographed on a funfair ride with Boris did not look good. Showing housing secretary Robert Jenrick a video of plans on which he had yet to pass judgement was ill-judged. It is not how things work. Pidgley knew these things by instinct. “Common sense is that which judges the things given to it by other senses,” said Leonardo da Vinci. Common sense was the sieve through which Pidgley’s decisions first passed.

Richard Desmond

Lessons: Desmond should take a leaf out of Pidgley’s book on planning

Desmond has instructed architects PLP to work up designs for 1,524 flats in nine blocks ranging from nine to 43 storeys on the 15-acre site. The burning political ember about the lack of affordable homes will be passed to another minister to judge. Desmond does deserve a fair hearing. An examination of the development appraisal shows that lifting the number of affordable homes from 21% to 35% will reduce the gross development value on the £1bn scheme by £106m – and so reduce the 12% margin close to zero. A fact lost in the fog of political war.

If Desmond has not yet done so, now might be the time to meet with the old master’s highly capable apprentice Rob Perrins, now in sole charge at Berkeley. The question to ask Perrins is this: “How come I’m having all this trouble when Tony managed to persuade Tower Hamlets to let him build 1,283 flats up the road from me on just 4.4 acres of land at South Quay? How come Mr P persuaded both Tower Hamlets and Boris to let him build a 68-storey tower, plus a 36-floor block in 2015? How come he got Sadiq Khan to sign off on ANOTHER 58-floor block bang next door?”

PS: a final example of Pidgley’s astuteness has been revealed in The Times this week, reporting on a dispute between liquidator CVR Global and accountant BDO. The former says a ‘solvent’ rescue of plans for a hotel and flats on Blackfriars Bridge would have been possible – if BDO had not sold it too cheaply to Berkeley. Today, the ‘Boomerang’ tower stands 52 floors proud, with most of the 274 apartments sold. Back in 2010, CBRE valued the development at £45m. In 2011, Berkeley paid £77m. Some 18 months later, Berkeley valued the site at £232m. That was after CBRE helped gain a revised planning consent that was exclusively residential – and removed affordable housing.

Peter Bill is a journalist and author of Planet Property