Planning system failure

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,

I’ve talked in the past about the problems we have with the planning system in this country but on Sunday evening I saw something that really brought it home to me.

In the run-up to the election campaign, we have been hearing a lot from the house-building side about how the current planning system stymies much-needed development. Indeed, Tory shadow housing minister Grant Shapps has some very clear ideas about how he would shake the system up were the party to be elected.

However, the problems with planning also affect much smaller developers and even the one-off novice who simply falls in love with the idea of doing up one particular building.

Restoration Man is a Channel 4 TV programme featuring trendy Geordie architect George Clarke and people who have bought dodgy derelict buildings. The programme follows the journey of the restoration of these sometimes quite breathtaking buildings, using Clarke’s architectural expertise. It’s like Grand Designs with older buildings and without Kevin McCloud’s sardonic asides.

Sunday’s episode featured a couple wanting to turn a derelict oak-framed field house in Lancashire into a family home by not only restoring it but adding an extension so that they could move into it with their four teenage daughters.

The original extension idea would have been very much in keeping with the style of the building however on the advice of the planning department, the plans were changed to incorporate something that was a little more contemporary in style and slightly smaller in size. I think it’s worth repeating part of that : on the advice of the planning department.

That ‘s the same planning department whose planning committee months later then threw out the whole idea of the extension on the grounds that it was still too big, too modern, not in keeping with the style of the building, not in the interests of the rural area. But it was mostly because slightly more than half the people on the committee simply didn’t like it.

Now I know that we saw only what the TV producers wanted us to see in order to make good TV viewing, but it strikes me as absolute madness that a small number of people can have the power to turn down such a promising project.

Yes, it can be argued that the field house was still restored, and beautifully so, (the pictures are here).

A once derelict building in a field is now a wonderful property that blends beautifully into its surrounds, whilst at the same time standing out as an example of what can be achieved with dedication, hard work, architectural vision and a good team of builders. But it’s not a family home. It’s too small to be used as a family home by the family that so wanted it. They’re renting it out.

The extension would certainly have made it bigger, so its impact on the landscape would have been greater. But we aren’t talking a carbuncle on the face of an old friend here. We’re talking about a sympathetic, modern twist on an existing, long-standing design. A modern twist that, at risk of repeating myself yet again, was advised by the planning department.

Without the extension it is still a beautiful building but not one that can be lived in by the family that so loved and nurtured it back to life. And that strikes me as a great shame. A very great shame indeed.

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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