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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 19th June 2009
Who should influence planning matters?, asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

There has been controversy this week about the influence of the Prince of Wales on architectural matters. He has, according to newspaper reports, ‘interfered’ in the planning of a new building on the site of London’s former Chelsea Barracks by writing privately to the Qatari royal family, whose development company have commissioned Lord Rogers’ architectural practice to design a modern building for the site.

The Prince is not known for his love of modern architecture – there were his remarks in 1984 about the proposed extension to the National Gallery (another Rogers concept), where he famously (and publically) said it would be like ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ There have been other comments, too. He said of the proposal to construct a Mies van der Rohe office block at Number One, Poultry, in the City of London that it was ‘another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London’; what was eventually built there, to designs by Sir James Stirling, the Prince liked no better’; he described as looking ‘rather like an old 1930s wireless.’

So exactly who should influence what is built? Is the Prince right to object when he does not like something? And how are decisions made?

In the case of the Chelsea Barracks building, a spokesman for the Prince of Wales said the Prince had not expressed a public opinion on the development, and that he is entitled to hold a private one. This is certainly true – like the rest of us, Prince Charles has his own thoughts on what he wishes to see and, again like the rest of us, can express them in private. We may wonder, though, whether our comments might carry as much weight as those of His Royal Highness if we were to write ourselves to the Qatari royal family.

And what does all this mean for planning matters in our own area? There are particular hoops for anyone seeking permission to build or to change a building. We usually need to seek planning permission; if a building we are altering is within a Conservation Area there are stricter regulations – which become, quite rightly, more arduous if it is a Listed Building, for which Listed Building Consent must be obtained – and the higher the grade, the more stringent are the conditions that must be met. Plans for altering a Grade 1 listed building will merit even closer scrutiny than one at Grade II – though that is never an excuse for giving a Grade II building anything but the best attention. And if you should have a Scheduled Ancient Monument, expect to have to make the best possible case for even the smallest alteration.

It is to the local council that the power to determine most planning applications is given. The process is a public one; an application is submitted and then the council will publish it on-line and also place public notices near the building in question. The green notices we often see attached to lampposts and gateways are the most obvious manifestation of the process. The notices and the website tell all interested parties that they can comment on the proposals. It is open to anyone and everyone to do so. When the closing date has passed the council will make a decision, taking into account any representations made to them. The simplest applications can be determined by officers and the Chair of the Planning Committee; more complicated ones will go to the full Planning Committee and, occasionally, to the full Council.

All this seems entirely democratic – and perhaps it is. But sometimes the balance is weighed more heavily one way than another. A large business coming to town and offering local jobs, or taking over a large, abandoned site, may not have too much of a fight about the details of their building application if there is, even unexpressed, the suggestion that they might go elsewhere if things don’t go their way. There are some developments in Ripon that might have had greater scrutiny, and more concrete guarantees required of developers, before being passed.

There is nothing wrong with expressing a point of view on a planning application, and local groups can often speak louder, and with more effect, than single voices – unless they are members of the Royal Family, perhaps. But we do need to be eternally vigilant to ensure that decisions are made for the benefit of us all, and not just to gratify the demands of business or of an unrepresentative pressure group. Our planners tread a fine line – let us help them to keep their feet firmly upon it.

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