Anthony Jelley, a supporter of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, on how the design preferences of local residents can be overridden
As one who has been deeply involved in one of the DCLG’s pilot projects for community planning, ‘The Neighbourhoods in Planning’ scheme, I have an inside view on how this noble endeavour by the Government is possibly turning out in London.
Our particular neighbourhood project has been funded by the DCLG and lead by the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, which was invited by the local community to help build a vision on an important site next to the River Thames, in London.
I have seen firsthand how the DCLG is fighting an heroic uphill battle to get truly community lead planning off the ground. On the surface it seemed such a simple and straightforward concept – give local communities the ability to decide, in the words of the Secretary of State, “the look and feel of development in their area”. But that was before I reckoned with planning officers, architects, developers and vested modernist ideological interests.
I have long suspected planning officers are mainly composed of modernist ideologues and that they have generally used Machiavellian tactics to put this ideology into practice, regardless of a local preference for generally traditional architecture. However, I have now seen how resistant they are to let go of the power and influence they have held for an eternity. They do not want things to change. In fact they would rather eat glass.
The planning authority and developer in question agreed to engage wholeheartedly in the DCLG’s scheme because they needed this process to move the development forward. However, it soon became clear that forces were afoot to rig the process and subvert a genuinely open conversation.
The initial indication of this was clear as day. In response to the community’s invitation to the Prince’s Foundation to lead the process, and before the workshops had even taken place, the developer appointed a modernist architect to design the scheme. Now think about it; even a passing Martian would have twigged that a request by the community for assistance from the Prince’s Foundation did not indicate a preference for modernism.
During and after the community workshops, people showed a real enthusiasm for the kinds of beautiful buildings and places the Prince’s Foundation had shown in photographs as suitable for our neighbourhood. The height, size and mass of these buildings were generally in line with the planners’ intention and that was not a real issue. However, subsequently after much applied pressure, the developer proposed a master plan, in which one out the seven buildings vaguely had this kind of architectural look and feel. I repeat, one out of seven. The other six building, we were told would be strange alien modernism. Additionally, there was no indication that natural and ecological building methods, request by the community had been given any consideration, whatsoever.
A battle had started that is still raging. I somehow think the most the community can reasonably expect is a fair 50/50 split between modernist and traditional buildings, but at the moment each proverbial scrap we have been granted by the planners and the developer is akin to prising open a fist, clenched in rigor mortis – with great difficulty, and one finger at a time. And to date, we have still only managed to prise open one finger.
Is this what the DCLG intended when it dreamt up community planning? Does the DCLG know the heavy resistance communities are up against when confronted with vested modernist interests? I think it probably does. And I suspect it is not too pleased.