“Not Touching, Can’t Get Mad!”
Let’s tactically shield ourselves from last week’s events with a “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named” approach and turn our attention to another blood-boiling issue: getting planning permission.
A Lambeth-living friend of mine recently questioned how the building behind his flat could ever have received planning permission. My initial scepticism to his exaggerations gave way when I saw the photograph of his previously light-filled rear garden…
Which side of the fence (or wall, or street) you sit on in these cases probably depends on whether the opacity of the UK Planning system works in your favour or against you. Delivering a successful application requires very specific and up-to-date knowledge of local and national policy and conditions. Here we can see a prohibitive condition of the current planning system: only experts can interpret this information. The layperson, like my friend, is left with the scaffolding, the noise and the dust, followed by a permanent loss of light and perceived stress on local infrastructure resulting from the more intensive land-use. Communities are left focusing on the visual results and, ironically, are more speculative than any developer in their assumptions on the project’s wider impacts.
Communities are left focusing on the visual results and, ironically, are more speculative than any developer in their assumptions on the project’s wider impacts
Looking further into the project, I discovered it to be a remarkable site, almost entirely hidden. It has had numerous unsuccessful planning applications until, finally, in 2015 the development team was successful. The project is described on the architect’s website as an 1800m² mixed-use development that continues the working life of a landlocked site, converting a light industrial space into creative offices, adding a single storey residence and ornamental garden to the roof.
The redevelopment dominates a space over which all the surrounding houses might previously have felt ownership – they are no longer able to ignore the reality of a large building in their ‘private’ domain. Yet it has met all the necessary conditions and has been permitted. The development team has navigated the planning process. It has understood the constraints and how to approach them in order to present an argument that gives them a right to build up a property, the legitimacy of which most laypeople would immediately question. So, is the real issue not about a lack of transparency and clear communication rather than individual schemes?
The frustration caused to local communities by a project like this of the ‘not touching, can’t get mad’ variation is not unique. However, we cannot let these frustrations embolden a nimbyist attitude that stalls developments, which in this case would have prevented the reuse of existing infrastructure. Local residents will echo my friend’s sentiments wondering ‘how did that ever get built?’. But the real issue is not the development itself; it’s one that we cannot see. It is the opacity of the planning system, in which information is locked up, only accessible to those with knowledge, time, contacts and money, and generally a mix of all four.
Fears of corruption, of those in positions of power making self-interested and politically-motivated decisions are inevitable if the information is not made transparent. This doesn’t simply mean having access to pdf files of construction drawings on the council website. Information has to be curated, consistent and digestible, much like in every other aspect of our digital and data-consumptive lives. It must give the public faith in the process that decides how their environment is shaped and shift attention from the ‘thing’ itself onto the issues that matter.
It must give the public faith in the process that decides how their environment is shaped and shift attention from the ‘thing’ itself onto the issues that matter.
If a project like this is the result of successfully adhering to planning policy and arguing an evidence-based case, then how can this be communicated to the neighbouring residents, leaving no questions of legitimacy? Whose responsibility should this be? If the project is a positive result for the site and for the surrounding community, then this should be clearly conveyed in a language that locals can interpret. Is there any reason why it should not be this way or why it cannot be this way?
This article was originally posted by Urban Intelligence’s Business Development Director, Ronan O’Boyle, on LinkedIn (June 30th 2016).
Author: Ronan O’Boyle
Ronan holds a Master of Architecture (UCD, Dublin) as well as a MSc. International Real Estate & Planning (UCL Bartlett). He previously worked with award winning architectural firms in Shanghai, Dublin and San Francisco. He leads our business development and customer relationship operations, helping to work customer feedback into the development of our products.