Overview: Not even the best laid plans succeed

Click to follow

Whenever there is an exhibition to do with building your own home or extending the one you live in, experts are inundated with requests for advice. But whether it is ever possible to prepare someone for doing battle with the planning authorities is another matter altogether. You may be lucky and find that the people in your local planning department are extremely helpful, but it is a lottery. And even if you get off to a flying start, the chances are that within a short time, that helpful chap (and it usually is a chap) leaves or goes on "study leave".

Whenever there is an exhibition to do with building your own home or extending the one you live in, experts are inundated with requests for advice. But whether it is ever possible to prepare someone for doing battle with the planning authorities is another matter altogether. You may be lucky and find that the people in your local planning department are extremely helpful, but it is a lottery. And even if you get off to a flying start, the chances are that within a short time, that helpful chap (and it usually is a chap) leaves or goes on "study leave".

Once a building is finished and admired, the pain of the planning process diminishes, like childbirth - until the next project. Ask Piers Gough, the acclaimed architect, who has been through the process more often than most. It is, he says, pathetic. "There is a knee-jerk reaction to any proposals because people don't like new buildings. The owner of a site no longer seems to own it. Why should everyone else control what an individual builds? It is almost like nationalisation by the back door. Of course planning officers must be fair-minded and make sure that the rights of neighbours are not infringed, but when you do get an officer who is well-informed, a decision is often completely overruled by high-handed councillors who vote against it because of local opinion."

His frustration is shared by the architect from a south London practice who spent an inordinate amount of time talking to planners about replacing a Sixties monstrosity with a timber building in the Hampstead area of London, only to have it turned down by the committee because of pressure from the neighbours. His client was so exhausted she pulled out, unable to face yet more months of costs and stress. And another, this time a straightforward scheme that had the support of neighbours, still took more than eight months to be considered, leaving the client on a tightrope of anxiety and with a loan of £1m.

The speed and efficiency of planning departments is already a subject of concern to the Government, but even harder to tackle is the public's lack of trust in their decisions. It is arguable that too many mediocre and some frankly dismal buildings have made cynics of us all, so it seems easier to object than to give an application the benefit of the doubt. If only all new buildings did turn out to be architectural triumphs, then the residential awkward squads could be pushed to the sidelines.

But until everyone in planning is more than a "philistine box-ticker" (Piers Gough's words) Nimbyism will thrive. Imagination and flexibility seem to have been buried under policy. Take, for instance, the reader who has permission to build a storage barn but is not able to move it closer to the house, which is on several acres of land. Should he really have to spend nine months negotiating and then go to appeal, all because the planners fear that some time in the future the buildings could be joined?

Wayne Hemingway, the designer, has come up with one solution: at least 500 forward-looking architects should be persuaded to leave their profession and re-train as town planners. Until then, perhaps they could spend a few months of "study leave" in the local planning department? That would turn a few tables.

Comments