Memorandum by the Bloomsbury Conservation
Area Advisory Committee (BCAAC) (CAB 34)
1. BCAAC appeared to give oral evidence
before you during your tall buildings inquiry. It was alone in
voicing concerns about the financial interests of the former CABE
chairman during questions from your colleagues. These concerns
surfaced earlier this year and were addressed, to some extent,
in the audit commissioned by DCMS.
2. However, the audit had a narrow remit
and did not consider whether the potential conflicts of interests
identified had actually influenced the views expressed by the
Commission on any individual planning proposals. Although not
referred to, it is understood that it was complaints about two
cases that Lipton's development company were promoting; Croydon
Central and South Kensington Underground Station, that triggered
the investigation. Therefore, it is considered that this inquiry
is very timely.
The choice of schemes reviewed
3. CABE is interested in getting involved
with developments at the pre-application stage and it is clear
that CABE does not have the resources to review large numbers
of applications. Therefore, it should give clear guidance to architects,
developers and planning authorities on the selection criteria
of those schemes which it can review. It is undesirable that there
should be a two class system.
4. The numerous letters of endorsement by
CABE that are issued on the strength of an assessment by Paul
Finch and a staff member, where developments do not meet criteria
for consideration by the Design Review Committee are a cause of
particular concern. The controversial Camden Underground Station
development and the UCL Cancer Unit in Bloomsbury are typical
5. The support which CABE offered to these
schemes was relied on to a considerable extent at subsequent planning
inquiries following appeals being lodged. It is unacceptable that
these expressions of support should have the same weight as the
properly considered views of locally based groups and the local
planning authorities which represent their interests.
6. It is also disturbing the way developers
increasingly approach CABE (and the Mayor in London) to obtain
support as a matter of course,before going to the local planning
authority concerned, whose staff and members may then feel overwhelmed,
or deterred from pursuing valid objections.
7. Christopher Bowden, of the DETR set out
CABE's consultation arrangements in his letter to local authorities
of 15 May 2001. This included guidance on significant projects
where the views of CABE should be sought, including those that
are significant because of their site. In this category, "proposals
which affect important viewsinto or from a World Heritage
Site for example," are included.
8. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume
that when a local authority, or a developer refers such a WHS
case to CABE, it should carry out a thorough assessment of the
potential impact on views of large-scale developments. Yet there
are recent striking examples of cases where it has failed to do
The criteria used for reviewing schemes
9. BCAAC considers that is vital that we
all play by the same rules, local planning authority officers,
members, the planning inspectorate and government ministers, when
considering planning applications. Of course these will be subject
to interpretation depending upon the circumstances of the individual
case. It is helpful to have in mind two relevant paragraphs from
Planning Policy Guidance Note l: (revised 1997) which sets out
the Secretary of State's current general policy and principles:
17. Local planning authorities should reject
poor designs, particularly where their decisions are supported
by clear plan policies or supplementary design guidance which
has been subjected to public consultation and adopted by the local
planning authority. Poor designs may include those inappropriate
to their context, for example those clearly out of scale or incompatible
with their surroundings.
18. Local planning authorities should not
attempt to impose a particular architectural taste or style arbitrarily.
It is, however, proper to seek to promote or reinforce local distinctiveness
particularly where this is supported by clear plan policies or
supplementary design guidance. Local planning authorities should
not concern themselves with matters of detailed design except
where such matters have a significant effect on the character
or quality of the area. including neighbouring buildings. Particular
weight should be given to the impact of development on existing
buildings and on the character of areas recognised for their landscape
or townscape value, such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding
Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas.
10. Most development control policies adopted
by local authorities will reflect this long-standing general guidance,
which appears to take a reasonable and practical approach to development
control. It is these local policies supported by supplementary
planning guidance, which will have been subject to public consultation,
that should form the assessment criteria for all development schemes
within a national planning context.
11. It is interesting to note the warning
for local authorities not to concern themselves with matters of
detailed design (PPG1 para 18 above). This resulted from a long
and vociferous objection by the architectural profession regarding
the practice of aesthetic control by planners. But this does not
appear to apply to CABE's often lengthy comments on detailed architectural
aspects of development proposals. Many of these may be valid in
themselves, but whether they should form part of the assessment
of the planning merit of an individual proposal is quite another
12. If CABE is to continue to have an input
into the planning process, then it is vital that its assessments
should be compatible with the parallel consideration by planning
authorities. These should be agreed and publicised and should
appear as headings in its minutes and subsequently in its comment
letters. In effect they would be a checklist and would facilitate
a more structured and consistent assessment.
The Consistency in the application of the criteria
13. The willingness of CABE to offer its
support freely to development schemes at a very early stage, even
before full impact studies have been produced is considered to
be irresponsible and unprofessional. Once such an expression of
support has been made, it is then very difficult to backtrack.
Naturally, such commitments are also made prior to local consultations
being carried out to see what concerns the people directly affected
by development proposals have, including neighbouring planning
authorities. Of course, it is in the interest of the developer
to get the Commission on board, but is it in the public interest?
14. The apparent lack of consistency of
the collective view of members of the design review committee
when considering an individual proposal, sometimes on several
times during the course of many months is also a matter of concern.
This could be due, in part, to the rota system for attendance
at its meetings.
15. The completeness of the minutes of meetings
and the wording of the formal letters conveying the Commission's
views are also very important matters. The former Chief Executive
of the Commission, Jon Rouse stated in 2003 that:
"we do not as a matter of course set out
reasoning which leads us to support projectsour commentaries
are longer where we have reservations than where we support projects.
We do not regard ourselves as some kind of shadow planning authority,
obliged to write the equivalent of a planning officer's report
to committee -but our working method is consistent with the principle
of the planning system, that applications should be given planning
permission unless there are reasons to the contrary."
16. This is not a convincing justification
of current practice. Local authorities are now under a requirement
to given reasons for approving developments, as well as refusing
them. In doing so, they are expected to state how developments
conform to policy.
17. It is reasonable that CABE should be
under a similar obligation. It must be noted that planning decisions
are based on compliance with local and national policies. Yet
CABE appears uncomfortable or unable to assess development proposals
within the context of the built environment and national as well
as local planning policies applying to it. This can be contrasted
with the very detailed comments on architectural matters, which
it frequently makes. The Commission's handling of the recent Effra
Tower case at Vauxhall and the Minerva tower behind the Tower
of London serve to highlight these serious shortcomings. Yet government
has given it a wider role than simply being an architectural think-tank.
18. While it can be agreed that CABE should
not be a shadow planning authority, this does lead us to ask whether
its deliberations should therefore have the status of a material
consideration in planning decisions. This must be the case, especially
in the present circumstances where its deliberations are not transparent,
no public access to meetings. Its membership appears to be drawn
from those with a direct financial interest in development.
CABE's relationship with other national and local
19. The operation of the joint EH/CABE policies
on tall buildings where in London, for instance, the two organisations
have taken opposing positions on virtually every tall building
case with the exception of the Lots Road towers, which are about
to go to a public inquiry. This was such an unusual event that
EH issued a press release. Where does this leave the policies
endorsed by the Government? There is a general perception that
CABE has got English Heritage well and truly sorted over the tall
buildings issue, following the Heron and Shard of Glass decisions.
20. While local authorities can feel marginalised,
voluntary environmental and amenity groups can feel totally sidelined
from its deliberations on proposals which directly affect them.
The discussions will be held behind closed doors on a confidential
basis and the locals will not know what is going on until the
development has been sewn up.
The future role of the organisation
21. This inquiry is inevitably overshadowed
by recent events leading to the probity inquiry and related departure
of the former chairman, for which the government bears some responsibility.
There will be a number of comments from CABE, sitting like time
bombs in planning files across the country. There are no doubt
other supporting Commission comments about to be used in forthcoming
planning appeals. These should have been scrutinised during the
audit to see whether they were coloured by potential undue influence
and therefore unsafe.
22. These recent events and the facts they
have revealed can only have further undermined public confidence
in the ethics and legitimacy of the whole organisation, especially
regarding its important quasi planning function. It is doubtful
whether the sole departure of Sir Stuart Lipton can restore public
confidence in the probity of the organisation. There was no appreciation
by the Commission in its press release that anything was wrong
following the publication of the audit report and Lipton's departure.
23. BCAAC would be far less exercised about
CABE, if the planning inspectorate and the government regarded
its deliberations as simply another input into the process. But
if these are to continue to be given weight in major planning
decisions as material considerations, then it is vital that the
Commission is fully accountable and that its decision making processes
are objective, consistent and transparent.
24. It is equally important that it represents
a broader range of professional and lay opinion regarding what
represents good architecture and good townscape. Its membership
should be changed to achieve this in order to gain wider public
25. Whether the underlying commercially
orientated culture has changed since Sir Stuart's departure must
be open to doubt. Serious questions remain regarding the operation
and objectivity of its design review function, especially under
the influence of Paul Finch who has an unenviable record of planner
bashing as editor of Building Design in the 1980's. If it is to
survive, CABE must acquire more of a public service ethos as a
government sponsored body, rather than appearing to be a narrowly
focused, self-serving clique.