Buildings shoud be signed off by planners as well as building control, suggests Julia Park

Julia Park

I’m not about to pass judgement on the architectural merits of 15 Clerkenwell Close (enough people have done that already) but the predicament raises a number of concerns about the planning process.

Neither of the two most fundamental questions is straightforward.

Firstly, should development control be looser or tighter? Should more, or less, information be required? And does it happen at the right stage?

Secondly, could the decision-making process be more objective? Should it be more democratic or less? And are decisions being made by the right people?

On the first, I confess I’m torn.

For all sorts of reasons projects, particularly those that involve conversions or demolition, often don’t pan out quite the way you expect. So within limits (there’s a woolly start…), there needs to be some flexibility. Applicants/agents can own up when things change and apply for “non-material minor amendments” – and many do. Others gamble on the fact that in the absence of any kind of post-completion check, the chances of being found out are slim, and it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.

15 Clerkenwell Close 1

15 Clerkenwell Close

On the other hand, the pressure to make a planning application quickly is significant and increasing. Clients understandably want to “de-risk” their investment by getting permission as soon as possible with minimal expenditure. This is often before structural and M&E engineers are fully on board, and long before a contractor is appointed. Realistically, there is little prospect of nailing everything at that stage – but that’s what we’re expected to do.

Design and Build has heightened the tensions that arise from submitting a scheme that is not fully designed, not fully costed and untested in terms of buildability. Most of us do design with construction in mind but the contractor often has different ideas.

For example, unless a client commits to a particular form of MMC, and makes this a condition in the tendering process, it would be risky to design it that way. Switching later is likely to require considerable post-planning re-design which no one wants to pay for and is likely to alter the approved scheme.

Coupled with sometimes ruthless “value-engineering”, this argues strongly for a tighter planning system, not a looser one.

Sooner or later (one enforcement notice is probably all it would take) our clients would realise that they need to give us the time, and the full range of expert support we need, to submit drawings of the building as it will be. This either suggests much earlier selection of the contractor and a genuinely collaborative process, or the end of Design and Build.

At least one council is setting an interesting precedent here. A partnership between Waltham Forest and Keepmoat Regeneration (now part of the Engie group) is building 300 new homes on a clutch of difficult sites in the north-east London borough; working together to tackle tricky issues before they become major problems.

Avoiding the complacency that can lead to overcharging in situations like this relies on mutual trust. That trust seems evident here. It probably helps that Waltham Forest is the planning authority as well as the client, and the fact that Engie is also providing aftercare means it’s in their interest to do a good job.

I digress. Followed to its logical conclusion, an effective planning process would require some sort of post-completion check. I’ve heard many design review panellists argue for an as-built review stage but there’s not much point unless it’s backed by the planners. In light of this, a requirement for the completion certificate to be signed off by planners as well as building control warrants serious consideration. I think it would do more good than harm (for architects and the local community) but there would be casualties. Even as I write, I’m thinking “be careful what you wish for”.

On the second question – who decides and how – it feels entirely logical that important decisions are taken by the people with the best understanding and the most experience in the relevant field and that the bigger the decision, the higher up the food chain it’s taken.

Largely in the name of democracy, the planning system works more or less in reverse and some aspects feel absurd. Highly qualified designers submit their proposals to often relatively junior planning officers who tie notices to lamp posts inviting members of the public to have their say by writing to the local planning department. Local people and lobby groups then bend the ears of their locally elected councillors and the committee ultimately decides – sometimes overturning officers’ recommendations despite having no better understanding of good design than the officers or the people they represent.

I’m talking generalities here. Some planners are extremely design-aware, as are some councillors, and London has more than its fair share of both. But it’s easy to see why many applicants pray for delegated powers, even those who support the principle of local democracy.

And how far should democracy go? When a scheme changes, should people be consulted again? Within reason, (there I go again…) they probably should. It’s seriously annoying when someone offers you one thing only to discover later that you’ve been given something else. The danger is that people take sides, and grievances get in the way of common sense and a pragmatic resolution of the problem.

Would the planning committee have granted permission for the building as it now stands? If the answer is yes, just do it. If it’s no, stand back and be objective. What is the nature of the harm? Is it really bad enough to warrant an enforcement order? Yes, it’s important that the planning process is taken seriously, but pick your battles; trust that lessons will be learnt and be more careful next time.

Is it a good thing that so many architects, including a number of big names, have come out and expressed their support for 15 Clerkenwell Close? I’m not convinced. It risks deepening the divide between the profession and the public, not closing it. That time and effort might be better spent on working out what a better planning system would look like.

That’s what the Raynsford Review has been considering over the last year. Based on the interim proposals, the final report (due out next month) should give us a really solid start.