‘The blames lies in rushed legislation’ says Highgate Society chair as ‘toilet house’ plans driven through

Last December a planning inspector made the controversial decision to allow a modern development in the heart of Highgate High Street, despite eight years of local opposition and Camden Council’s decision to refuse planning permission. Kirsten de Keyser, chair of the Highgate Society, comments.

‘The best view of London is from the top of the Shell Centre,” opined Highgate legend Sir John Betjeman, “mainly because you can’t see the Shell Centre.” If John were alive today, he could soon refashion his acerbic observation from the roof garden of 69 Highgate High Street, where a bloated four-storey development has been given the green light by one Terry Phillimore.

Mr Phillimore, a planning inspector, was the last in a long line of participants evaluating the suitability of a scheme to develop the Highgate flower stall site. Camden Council weighed in first, rejecting the proposal for its size and scale. Up next, English Heritage, alarmed at the severe damage to an important conservation area. Meanwhile, 78 per cent of surveyed Highgate residents dismissed the proposal, for example, for being “a vanity project in poor taste”.

So, in light of the fact that your democratically elected council, your public industry watchdog and two in three of your neighbours apparently hate your scheme, a less arrogant developer might spend a moment or two contemplating whether they might just have got this one wrong – despite one man’s view.

The coalition government, rushing to reduce a 1,000-page planning framework to something that fits on the back of a cigarette packet, has simply created bad law, with all the unintended consequences such rushed legislation invariably entails.

The new, much trumpeted National Planning Policy Framework is completely devoid of democratic credentials and councils roll over in advance of appeals as they cannot afford to fight the deep pockets of “rapacious property developers”. Appeals, picked apart by very clever QCs, riding roughshod over sensible local planning policies.

The result is inspectorate decisions, which do not match the desires of the local community. The Planning Inspectorate itself is (under)staffed with town planners and architects, all swimming in the same professional soup as the very developers and architects they’re evaluating. Go figure.

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Conservative Stratford-on-Avon MP Nadhim Zahawi, a veteran of conservation area politics, said last month: “The damage [the National Planning Policy Framework] is doing to our flagship policy of localism is immense, and, if it continues, the physical harm it is doing... will become the defining legacy of this government. No-one in my constituency believes that we can preserve ourselves in aspic forever. However, change needs to be supported by the community, and in the current situation that simply isn’t happening.”

What is happening is that we are yanking disagreements among residents out of the ordered structure of a sensibly regulated planning framework and allowing them, instead, to play out on the street, where anything goes.

The fact that a piece of paper now says that the proposed edifice for 69 Highgate High Street is a splendid affair does not alter the opinion on the pavement one iota. It’s still the same building, still the same people walking by, still thinking tomorrow precisely what they were thinking yesterday.

Good morning Mr Pickles. Policy making for interesting neighbourhood relations.