Thomas Sutcliffe: Eyesores are a fair price for individuality

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The Independent Online

Planning regulations are one of those concepts that always require conjugation. When they apply to you, for instance, they are a necessary protection of visual amenity and our shared urban heritage. When they apply to me, on the other hand, they may turn out to be an unconscionable invasion of my rights to self-expression and a perfect example of the heavy hand of the state. And for some people the words alone will be enough to provoke a reaction: "planning", with its echoes of Soviet command economy centralism, and "regulation", with its distinct whiff of petty bureaucracy.

Presumably something of that sort was going on when Boris Johnson suggested that planning regulations should be swept away for any buildings put up since 1950, citing the difficulty his constituents are having in getting permission to add solar panels to their houses.

I read these remarks with more than academic interest, since I'm currently waiting to find out whether my local council will allow us to harvest such sunshine as reaches our house. Should we be turned down, I'm afraid the planet will simply have to absorb the blow. The process of appealing against a decision is even more long-winded and will require yet more cheques. And since, as Johnson pointed out, solar panels are rather unassuming additions to the skyline, you can't help wondering whether the process couldn't be made a little more encouraging.

I did wonder, though, how many of Henley's poorer residents really are clamouring to install environmentally friendly accessories, since they are offputtingly expensive even without the associated bureaucratic costs. Isn't it more likely that it was a well-known Notting Hill resident that prompted this sudden rally in support of alternative technology?

When it comes to his broader point, though, he's surely got a point. "Let a thousand flowers bloom," he said, quoting Chairman Mao in support of a laissez-faire architectural liberty. Defenders of planning would point out that you might also get a lot of weeds if the regulations were relaxed - and it's true that the thought of a near neighbour improving their property with stone-cladding or a corrugated iron car-port is an unnerving prospect. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that the reaction to both of those conventional eyesores is social rather than aesthetic. As Johnson pointed out, planning regulations favour homogeneity over individuality and the past over the future. They are nervous of anything that departs from the norm - and it doesn't really matter whether the norm is pretty mediocre in architectural terms.

The street on which I live was recently designated a conservation zone, which means that its middle-of-the-road architectural values - solid, Edwardian, slightly Pooterish - will effectively be preserved in aspic and protected against anything which might show them up as dull or unambitious. Indeed, the very terms in which planning regulations are drawn up militate against the outstanding building - since one of the great sins is to stand out.

It's an approach to urban living which often privileges facades against the lives lived inside them - and which undoubtedly makes our towns and suburbs duller and more conservative than they need be. If the price of something better is a few more eyesores, perhaps it's worth paying.

A tickle stick could replace the Tory torch

What should replace the Conservative Torch, which, according to reports at the weekend, is to be stubbed out as the party logo? You can't really blame Cameron for moving away from it. To my mind it's always given off a faint Nuremberg flicker, rather than the noble glow of liberty that was presumably intended. But short of replacing the beacon with a tickling stick, to underline the leader's commitment to happiness, it's not easy to think of a substitute. Their best option may be to stick with the overlapped square blocks of blue which you can currently see on the party website. They look like Post-it notes, which seems apt - but I think they should be left blank in future to offer potential voters an implicit Cameron promise. You scribble in what you'd like in the way of policies - I'll see if I can get it past the party diehards.

* We can surely consign the recent survey in which 50 per cent of viewers said they thought this series of Big Brother should be the last, to the Pious Fibs folder. Since the research was actually commissioned by ITV they clearly had little interest in adjusting the figures to account for human nature, any more than the Lib Dems did in the days when they regularly used to announce that huge numbers of voters were quietly yearning to pay extra income tax. I doubt that Channel 4 will be rattled by this public repudiation of their swollen-uddered cash cow - particularly since the numbers of people actually watching the programme is up this year. Last Friday 4.7 million people watched, giving the channel the biggest share of the night. Either a hell of a lot of them are sitting there saying, "Yeah, you know - it really is past its sell-by date, this format", or they're just too ashamed to tell the truth to market researchers.