I recently took part in a public inquiry, giving evidence about the very obvious design qualities of a modestly scaled scheme. It massively enhances what is laughingly categorised as a ‘conservation area’ because it contains a 19th-century railway station.
The environs, and indeed the station itself, are a depressing mixture of neglect, incoherent 20th-century interventions, a surface car park and so on.
However, conservation area it is and thus an invitation for the heritage brigade to wax lyrical about the alleged poor quality of the new intervention, the way its architecture fails to respond to a wonderful existing condition and so on. This was laughable stuff but, of course, had to be taken seriously in the context of the inquiry.
This situation is not uncommon. It is based on what I regard as an unscrupulous abuse of the English language whereby written into planning and conservation policy is the peculiar phrase ‘less than substantial harm’. For anyone who has had the misfortune to listen to consultants wriggling on this semantic pin, it is as though we have entered an Alice in Wonderland world in which words mean what the person uttering them says they mean.
In my case, my opinion was that the proposal in question made a 100% positive contribution to its environs, fulfilling the old requirement that development in a conservation should ‘preserve or enhance’ if it is to receive planning permission. In other words, there was no question of any harm being done, only beneficial additions to and repair of a ghastly mess.
That is never good enough for the Historic England folk who, with their predecessors English Heritage, have managed to foist on us the concept that inevitable ‘harm’ is caused by a development that is in, next to or can be seen from a heritage context. Thus, the work of committed clients and skilful architects is condemned in advance: if you are proposing to build in such a way, what you are proposing is guilty of a planning crime.
In order to proceed, you have to plead mitigating circumstances, which means that while you admit you are doing harm, you argue you are providing benefits that outweigh the harm – or the harm is so immaterial it should be treated as non-existent (good luck with that one).
Why do we treat buildings as though they are the accused in a criminal court? This is not unique in English law. Journalists sued for libel are assumed to be guilty if there is a prima facie case to answer. Architects accused of breaching the rules of the Architects Registration Board are assumed to be at fault unless they can prove otherwise.
However, these are exceptions and are different in kind from what until recently was a reasonable assumption: that to build was to do something socially beneficial, providing accommodation of every kind, employment and so on. Government still drones on about the need for massive amounts of housing. The London Plan anticipates even now huge increases in office supply and infrastructure.
But while the Whitehall fantasy about regulation reduction continues to be peddled, the reality is that for the providers of buildings things are becoming more, not less, complicated, and the reasons for planning refusal are growing like knotweed.
Michael Gove is doing his best to frighten us all with call-ins and other ministerial blockage tactics. If it is not carbon that is worrying him, it is beauty (or lack of it). He is simultaneously centralising planning control, by determining what should be built according to national policy, and devolving it so that street soviets (read Warden Hodges) can decide whether a local resident may or may not extend their home, paint the garage red and so on.
The smallest scheme now requires a carbon statement, along with fire assessments grossly out of proportion to the nature of the proposal. This will badly affect the small builders Gove claims he wishes to help. Matters that are beyond the scope of spatial planning are being added to it like topsy, requiring planning officers to behave as though they are pocket Leonardos. Many of the additions are properly a matter for building control and should be in Building Regulations.
In short, politicians say one thing but do another. It is part of their mindset in which, alas, amnesia plays a critical role. None of the ‘problems’ the government claims it is addressing are new, and the new nostrums are largely a rehash of policy previously tried and found wanting. Introducing ‘beauty’ into planning – without defining what it means – looks like a last desperate throw of the dice.
Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival