Comment: Planners must sort good design from bad well before any formal application, by Peter Bill

Planners who do not air their views on good design let bad design into the vacuum, says Peter Bill.

Peter Bill
Peter Bill

During 20 years in the construction trade. I rarely heard the word 'architect' said without a preceding expletive.

Two decades of exposure to the whims of the design profession allow me to give planners and councillors some tips on distinguishing between effing good and effing bad architects, in response to government chief planner Steve Quartermain's assertion that planners support good design.

If they do, it is to little effect. The best most planners can do is stand as bulwarks against cramming and vulgar excess. But Quartermain has a point: it would be to the common good if officers and planning committee members were able to say "That's dreadful, go away," on key applications. But how to judge? Harmony, symmetry, simplicity and pricey windows are good markers.

Beyond that, it gets subjective. So it's best to exercise informal rather than formal power. Let's first assume the project is commercial - "good design" for housing is easy, after all. Housebuilders are good at keeping out the rain. Keep architects well clear, just set minimum space standards and maximum densities. Tell the developer you'll publish their "viability" studies if they object.

Planners must be able sort good commercial architecture from bad well before any formal application. Doing so with confidence means not just knowing your subject, but letting developers know you know. How? Read on. Before doing so, beware. Planners who do not air their views on good design let bad design into the vacuum. If shoddy and cheap will pass muster, why spend more?

Looking for advice? Try Peter Wynne Rees. The City of London planner, who retired after 29 years last March and is now professor of places at University College London's Bartlett School of Architecture, turned up to an Evening Standard party in knee-high burgundy boots. I interviewed him for the paper when he retired. His account of how he set out his stall in the mid-1980s is worth absorbing, if not exactly copying.

"In early meetings, developers would turn up with expensive models in glass cases. 'Why are you here?' I'd ask. 'We've come to consult on our scheme.' I'd say: 'No you haven't, you've just come to brief me. I want you to (come in at) the back-of-the-envelope stage. And please make sure that you don't let your architect draw on the envelope first.'" By the end of his reign most, but not all, developers knew the designers who'd pass the Rees test and those who'd not.

By way of a postscript, a developer building 200 flats in a historic part of the City of London employed a perfectly competent architect three years ago. The plans were passed - conditional on the facades being redesigned by someone more than competent. As a result, I will be able to walk out of my flat in 2017 and eye facades which are simpler, more symmetrical and more in harmony with their surroundings. The windows will be costing a fortune.

Peter Bill is the author of Planet Property

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