Joan Smith: Just who does Prince Charles think he is?

Whatever else, he's no town planner
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The Independent Online

Last week, during one of this country's periodic fits of morality, a story emerged about a public figure shamelessly exploiting his privileged position. The man in question is wealthy, well-connected and has been accused on many occasions of avoiding paying huge amounts of tax on his estates and business interests. He's never had a job, does very little work and recently used his influence to stop a development in London which would have created 5,000 much-needed jobs.

As if that weren't bad enough, it's now been revealed that the man has created such a climate of fear that developers feel they have to show their plans to him in advance, hoping he won't stymie them later on. Although he has no official standing or expertise in architecture, the developers behind two big London developments, at King's Cross and Battersea Power Station, both felt they had to check their plans with him. He has "a big voice", admitted a developer to a trade magazine.

In almost any other circumstances, this flagrant abuse of power would cause at least as much outrage as MPs' expenses. His picture would appear on front pages under headlines asking "Who does he think he is?" He would be accused of wielding undue influence, treating London as his private fiefdom and making Britain look like a feudal laughing-stock. Foreign investors now believe that a single person has unofficial power of veto over prestigious developments in this country, that he can drop a note to his blue-blood mates – the royal family of Qatar in the case of the Chelsea Barracks development – and stop projects he dislikes in their tracks.

If the culprit were a politician, we'd never hear the end of it – quite rightly. But there's something about royalty that turns minds to mush, and the Prince of Wales has actually been praised in some quarters for ensuring that Lord Rogers's design for the Chelsea Barracks site never got as far as being considered by the planning authority. This is not about the merits of the steel-and-glass design, which has its supporters and detractors, but the need to follow democratic procedures; the fact that Lord Rogers' condemnation last week of Charles's interference was denounced in Tory circles as "bad form" is a powerful reminder of the lingering snobbery that continues to disfigure this country.

The architect said he had offered to debate his proposals with the prince in public, but that isn't how Charles operates. He doesn't debate and he doesn't go through normal channels; he pontificates and he pulls rank. Not so long ago he refused to engage with a scientist who told him politely that he took issue with the prince's views on genetically modified food; Charles walked away, and the scientist was told by a flunkey that one doesn't take issue with the heir to the throne.

Why not? In a country where the electorate really cared about the principles of democracy and accountability, the Prince of Wales would be treated not just as a joke – his views are intellectually feeble and reactionary – but actually dangerous. He's still protected by the prominence of his mother, in the way that Gordon Brown was shielded by Tony Blair, and we all know how that is turning out. As a lifelong republican, I just can't wait for the reign of King Charles III.