Janet Street-Porter: How planners blight our towns

They are the last practitioners of the dark arts of subterfuge, waffle and downright deception
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The Independent Online

I have always thought that the British public care passionately about their surroundings, and this weekend a landmark television series dissects just how strongly ordinary people feel about modern architecture that has let them down.

In July last year, fed up with the BBC's series Restoration, which employed Gryff Rhys Jones and Eurovision song contest style voting tactics to whip up enthusiasm for bringing back to life second-rate redundant work houses, follies and swimming pools, I proposed that we'd be better off demolishing buildings that no longer fulfilled their original purpose and erecting first rate contemporary stuff in their place.

George Ferguson (then president of the Riba) had been thinking along the same lines, and wrote a widely-reported speech attacking the cult of restoration. After my column appeared on these pages, I received plenty of letters from architects and designers thanking me for making a stand. I met George and we found we both agreed about the fact that poor architecture really blights people's lives, and far too much time is spent in Britain obsessing about saving the old, at the expense of making the new better.

At the moment, John Prescott seems determined to press ahead with the demolition of inner city housing in Liverpool and Manchester, in spite of evidence that neighbourhoods can be regenerated more cheaply and effectively if local residents are involved with the planning process and new development meshes with existing streets and landmarks. One of the most worrying aspects of this government's determination to steamroller through a large amount of new house-building in the South-east is that the Big Idea falls under the aegis of Mr Prescott who, for all his Old Labour credentials, is not someone who I consider ever really stops and listens to what the ordinary man or women wants at street level.

Lord Rogers has voiced his anxiety about the wisdom of placing great swathes of the countryside in the hands of private developers without a master plan and strict quality controls. He is right. Travel around Britain and you can't fail to be aware of the growth of Toytown, as little brick boxes with miniature gardens, garages and dinky windows spring up in featureless estates surrounding all our major conurbations. How do we make sure that all the new housing will not repeat past mistakes?

One radical idea might be to stop listening to wealthy philanthropists like Prince Charles, self-interested groups like property developers and architects, and start listening more intently to consumers, men and women who every day use public transport, work in badly designed offices and factories, and go home to bleak, featureless suburbia.

For decades after the Second World War, architects and planners spoke in a mysterious jargon that only they could understand, with the result that the public felt excluded from the rebuilding of Britain. Some truly appalling decisions were made in the Sixties and Seventies, and only recently have some of the most disgraceful buildings been demolished. These days architects are much better communicators and the public are more visually aware - good design, via Ikea, Habitat and the efforts of people like Tom Dixon and Terence Conran, has entered into the mainstream effortlessly.

But go into the planning department of any major authority in Britain and you are still entering the land that time forgot. Town planners are the last practitioners of the dark arts of subterfuge, waffle and outright deception. How else can we explain the destruction of so much of our city centres and the second-rate rubbish that has been built in every high street?

At the start of this year, the largest survey ever about architecture in Britain was carried out by Channel 4 which asked the public to vote for the buildings they would like to see demolished. They received an astonishing 10,000 votes about more than 1,000 buildings and the results form the basis of an important television series airing over four consecutive nights starting tomorrow.

The majority of the most loathed buildings were built in the last 50 years, and the reasons that people gave for wanting these eyesores blasted out of existence ranged from the bleakly humorous to the desperate. Even more worrying was the number of people who declared their own newly built homes so poorly designed they should be dynamited. George Ferguson proposes the creation of an X list, exactly like the listed building register, so that, once X-rated a building could be fast-tracked for destruction.

There's no doubt that people are extremely cross about what they see as inertia on the part of local authorities when it comes to admitting their past mistakes and rectifying them. The most loathed building in Britain turns out to be Cumbernauld Town Centre. This concrete 1960s megastructure sits decaying and unloved bang slap in the middle of attractive Scottish countryside, in a town where the residents are perfectly content with their housing and local services but completely ashamed of the wreck that occupies its centre.

Now the planning department have decided to allow a private developer to tack a large retail box, a shopping mall on to it, with zero public spaces, and only accessible during trading hours. They have already allowed Tesco to build the largest store in Scotland next door, a structure the size of an airport terminal, which drains all the life that remains out of the existing shabby and poorly laid out town-centre mall. To me, the planners responsible for Cumbernauld are seriously negligent. They declined to ask the residents what they wanted, failed to consider what the proposed new building looked like from the outside.

The programme-makers brought in a team of architects and designers with proven track records in successful urban regeneration in places like Birmingham's Bull Ring. After visiting Cumbernauld they came up with a strategy to breathe life into the town centre by creating streets and routes that were people-friendly, around interesting existing buildings. The official planning department refused even to countenance it. If these bureaucrats were politicians they'd be voted out of office, but, as civil servants, they can carry on ruining the lives of the people of Cumbernauld as long as they like.

The residents of Bournemouth will be in sympathy. Every day they walk along their seafront and see an eyesore of epic proportions ruining the view. The derelict Imax cinema, another glaring example of planning blight, is another prime piece of real estate in private hands. A problem which local officials seem incapable of resolving.

After you've sat through Demolition, you'll end up wondering what qualifications are needed to become a town planner in Britain today. Taste and sensitivity certainly aren't two of them.