Mary Dejevsky: Planners must have a sense of proportion

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago I described the difficulties we, and the council, faced when trying to get a planning decision enforced. Well, I'm delighted to report that the two-storey lift shaft built – without permission – on the roof of a block opposite ours has almost been demolished. Some bags of bricks remain to be collected, but the original roofline has been restored.

And what a difference it makes. Not just to the view from my study, though I am grateful for that, but to the look of the building as a whole. Suddenly this not particularly distinguished, but not displeasing, building is back in proportion. It looks as it was designed, to look.

Perversely, though, I find myself a little more sympathetic to the developer who "tried it on". Only a few streets away, a new in-fill block of flats is being built where there was once a car park. And in this, far larger, project the roofline is rising a good two storeys higher than the adjacent buildings. It already looks too big.

The problem is less one of height than of scale. This block, when it is finished, is destined to look out of all proportion to its surroundings; not just bloated, compared with the buildings on either side; but alien. Nor is it the only one. Government buildings are particular offenders. The new Home Office, completed four years ago – as was proudly announced, on time and to budget – has a vast frontage that would do Ceausescu's Romania proud.

Passing by the other day, I tried to imagine what it might look like 10 per cent smaller all round. It would resemble, I guessed, some of the better French and German public architecture: low-rise, stylish, almost graceful, and not dominant. Why can they do it, and we so often can't?

The Home Office, though, is nowhere near the worst of it. The relatively new Paternoster Square colonnades around St Paul's Cathedral are in style, but disgracefully not in scale. There is little point protecting London's skyline, if you obscure some of the best of it close up. A monster complex of glass-fronted flats is nearing completion beside Hyde Park. But the developer recently moved its headquarters to a refurbished building in one of the strictest conservation areas of Westminster.

I'm not asking, Prince Charles-like, for all new buildings in established areas to replicate the existing style. There are enormously successful buildings from the Sixties and Seventies that were "modern" for their times, but blend in with the earlier architecture in a way that is pleasing and even complements it. Some of the college extensions in Oxford and Cambridge are adventurous, but aesthetically satisfying – and remain so several decades on. Personally, I'm quite fond of the Knightsbridge Barracks – designed by Sir Basil Spence – where you can occasionally see the horses lined up for parade. Or the old Home Office – another Spence design – close to St James's Park, though the late lamented Lord St John of Fawsley was vicious about both.

I dare to hope, though, that scale and proportion might be coming back into style. The bitter disputes that have erupted in London about Chelsea Barracks, the British Museum extension and sundry towers suggest that more people beside the specialists are starting to care. It's time for the planners not only to measure the height, but to feel the depth, width and overall design before granting permission to build.

Give the BBC English lessons, Boris

However hard he tries to disguise it, Boris Johnson has a serious side – which took him this week to the launch of a scheme to help refugees. A key demand of the Enriched programme is better provision of English classes.

Britain's approach to English teaching is decidedly hit and miss, dependent on local authorities and so on public funding. Outside this are private colleges, some with the authority to sponsor visas, which profit handsomely from the lack of classes elsewhere. Many people, often working odd hours, fall through the cracks.

I wonder why one of the country's best language resources cannot be harnessed to the cause of teaching newcomers. BBC TV has two digital channels that broadcast precisely nothing during the day. Why not require them to use their down-time to broadcast English courses?

Learning English from the BBC has an honourable history. Natan Sharansky and many other cold-war era political prisoners learnt English by listening to the BBC in prison. A Briton, Kathy Flower, became a celebrity in 1980s China, presenting the BBC's English course. But although some BBC foreign-language services offer English lessons and there is a website, there is nothing broadcast in the UK specifically for new arrivals. Maybe Boris could propose a joint venture.

Wine by the glass – or the per cent?

England's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, long an advocate for a minimum price for alcohol, has launched a broadside against parents who allow their children to drink wine, even diluted with water.

Sir Liam may have a point, about parents and price, but I wish he, or someone, would focus as sharply on the wine as on the consequences. Why has it become so hard to find a bottle of wine – good, bad or indifferent – with an alcohol content of less than 13 per cent? Reds are nudging towards 15 and even 16 per cent.

Strength inevitably affects the taste. Merlot, which I used to regard as a light red often tastes little different from Cabernet, whatever region it comes from. There have even been times when – shame, oh shame – I have diluted the contents of my glass. The recent flight to rosé wines surely reflects this gap in the market.

One explanation for what has happened is the global diktat of the US wine guru, Robert Parker, whose palate may perhaps have been dulled by his penchant for heavy, oaked and aged wines. Competitive marketing supposedly did the rest.

But why has the tardy commercial response been to pioneer new "light" wines, which are only now going on sale to indifferent reviews, rather than returning to a classic Continental style? Under-age drinkers will scorn the new breed, and so, for quite different reasons, will I.