Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

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 examples.

  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 views—into 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 so.

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 matter.

  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 projects—our 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 agencies

  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 support.

  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.

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