Supporter's Column: Duncan Blackmore

"We need a system that allows buildings to revel in their difference, that represent all Londoners, that demand to be noticed, that understand that ‘visual impact’ can be positive."

Planning for Idiosyncrasy


London’s architecture is most alive where one property meets another, where historic boundaries and ancient party walls divide the land into small parcels which variously contradict, compete, disregard, accord or defer in creating the adjacencies which dynamise our shared experience of moving through the city. In contrast with that rich and various historic assortment of approaches to building, the economics and risk-minimisation of today exert an almost irresistible pull towards homogeneity in the private sector development of small sites. If we want new small developments in London to further enrich our experience of the city, we need to ‘plan’ for it.

So how might the planning system enable and encourage a willing and design-focused developer to contribute to London’s layered history of small sites development? The simple answer is that we need to create a clear economic incentive for developers to set their design ambitions higher; we need policy that makes the delivery of special buildings a truly justifiable economic decision, and the way to do that is to allow good buildings to be bigger.

Although there are rare exceptions, at present, design quality rarely plays any meaningful role in planning decision-making on small sites. Beyond technical considerations, decisions about the design of small schemes are overwhelmingly focused on ‘harm’ and the ‘appropriateness’ of the scale and materials, with ‘visual impact’ cited only as a negative thing. There is tragically little aspiration for things to actually be good – just not too much worse and not noticeably bigger.

Where it exists, well-intended design guidance is used to suppress ambitious design. Contemporary architecture can be tolerated, but only if it isn’t too challenging or can be said to be a modern interpretation of the local vernacular. As illustrated by the saga surrounding Amin Taha’s Clerkenwell Close, small schemes of unusual quality can occasionally be willed into existence in spite of the system, but certainly not because of it. We need a system that allows buildings to revel in their difference, that represent all Londoners, that demand to be noticed, that understand that ‘visual impact’ can be positive.

Disregarding the obvious challenges of capacity and training, the inability of the planning system to properly engage with design on relatively small-scale proposals boils down to problems of precedent and perceived subjectivity. The embedded concern is that an approval for an extraordinary seven-story building next to a boring four-story one will be followed by amendments which diminish the quality, and that the planner’s ability to defeat proposals for shit versions of a similar scale nearby will be weakened by the precedent. It’s a sorry situation which caters only to the lowest common denominator – by aiming to stop the worst examples it makes the exceptional almost impossible.

A solution to this could be the introduction of a specific urban exception small-sites planning policy which exists outside this problematic system of precedent-setting, and with an enhanced assessment and policing of design quality - in many ways similar to Paragraph 80 of the NPPF. As that policy recognises the importance and legacy of innovative one-off country houses, we need policy to support the delivery of ambitious high quality small urban projects.

Applications for consent under the policy could be significantly more expensive to cover the increased costs. Applicants could be required to go through a design review process. A long list of planning conditions, including the sign-off of detailed design and an architect retention clause could be imposed to ensure that the promised quality is delivered. The opportunity for ‘non-material’ amendments could be removed. Crucially, a scheme granted consent under the policy could not be leveraged as precedent by subsequent applicants less interested in quality, liberating decision makers to assess design with confidence that the decision will not be used against them.

We must do something. If under-resourced planning departments continue to judge schemes of high ambition against criteria designed to minimise harm and impose minimum standards, we are subjecting our cities to a generation of bland, value-engineered, inoffensively scaled, little yellow and brown buildings. Let’s instead put support in place that could enable the weird and extraordinary.


Duncan Blackmore is the director of Arrant Land and cofounder of Neighbourhood writes about small sites and planning for idiosyncrasy.