Planning decisions are never democratic

There is a letter in today’s Guardian in response to the long saga of the intervention by the Prince of Wales in the planning dispute in Chelsea. The letter is from Georgine Thorburn of the “Chelsea Barracks Acton Group”, and asserts that her organisation had opposed the development proposed by Richard Rogers’ practice on the site of the disused Chelsea Barracks well before Prince Charles decided to intervene (there is another, from a local resident who also opposed the development, and one from a former president of Riba who supported it). Rogers has complained that Prince Charles’ intervention comes from an unelected royal who should keep his nose out of “democratic” planning decisions.

Well, as anyone who has experience of the planning system knows, it is not democratic at all; it is simply bureaucratic. Recently, we opposed a development near us which involved building three extra dwellings on a plot of land which currently holds one small house and a large garden, which widens towards the back as its side boundary is next to an alleyway which runs at an angle from the road. The local planning department refused the development, but the developers appealed to the planning ombudsman, who approved it.

If there is one bitter aspect of Charles’s intervention in the Chelsea affair, it is that he only intervenes to oppose high-profile ugly buildings; there is nobody to save ordinary people from having unsuitable housing developments foisted upon their neighbourhoods by a central government bureaucrat. None of those who make planning decisions are elected; it’s all done by appointed staff, and while there is eventually political responsibility for it, it’s usually a long way down the list of issues at every general election.

In any case, the argument that Charles is “unelected” is not valid, since we have a Parliament which could choose to get rid of the monarchy, or replace the Windsors with another family, and has never seen fit to do so. The intervention did not consist of striding into the planning department and throwing his weight around, but having a word in the ear of one of the major investors, something he is quite entitled to do. Elected or not, and regardless of his bias towards Neoclassicism, his views on concrete and glass buildings are shared by many ordinary people; quite apart from the fact that many of them are ugly, this kind of architecture dates very quickly and will be passé — in favour of a different kind of ugly modernism, of course — within much less than a generation.

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