Since planning reform is on the agenda following the Queen’s Speech, I would like to make some suggestions, following my experience of observing the system in action with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and, more recently, the planned building by Make on the South Bank:-
1. Since the abolition of the GLC, planning in London is in the hands of the local boroughs. Owing to long periods of budget cuts, they will often have only a single very over-stretched conservation officer who will be relatively junior. Moreover, the income of planning departments now depends on offering paid pre-application advice to developers. This inevitably makes them friendly with developers who will concentrate resources on buttering them up.
2. Decisions on planning are then in the hands of the relevant planning committee, a group of only six people who will be making huge decisions on development without any particular architectural knowledge or expertise. They are more likely to be interested in jobs and income from business rates than issues of architectural quality and character.
3. Bad projects can be called in by the Mayor or the Secretary of State, but this is a hugely expensive and laborious system. With the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the Inspector found in favour of the New York-based developer’s scheme to turn it into a luxury hotel, since which nothing has happened. The climate of investment has changed and post-COVID the City may not need quite so many luxury hotels. So, the whole procedure is very laborious and excessively expensive.
4. Michael Gove seems to be inclined to put planning out of the hands of politicians – I agree with this – and into the hands of local people. I am in favour of a non-specialist element in planning decisions, but I can’t see how the new system will work.
5. The whole system is rigged in favour of new development against restoration, conservation and retrofit, which isn’t great. This may be something to do with VAT. Or the way grants are administered. Or the way planning decisions are made.
6. Developers choose big commercial practices like Make to navigate their way through the planning system. But actually smaller practices are often more attuned to adaptation and sympathetic new development. This should be reflected in the way grants are administered and projects assessed by planning committees.
I’m sure there are other things that need to change. But these are some suggestions, based on recent experience.