Roger Madelin, Chief Executive of development firm Argent Group and driving force behind the redevelopment of King’s Cross, is fond of telling people that the pile of paperwork for the project is rather taller than his wife.
Anybody wishing to undertake a major development project in London has to navigate their way through the countless challenges, queries and objections which emerge from many different quarters. First, there are issues concerning heritage and listed buildings. In the King’s Cross example, every structure and building has its own particular history and its own story to tell. The disused gas holders which dominate the site are not just any old gas holders, but the only example of three interconnected gas structures in the world; a Grade II listed treasure, no less, which, according to English Heritage, has to be preserved. The business of dismantling them, storing them, and re-erecting them on a nearby site is a significant project in its own right, not least because of the legal ambiguity as to whether a structure can still be listed when it is dismantled and in storage and, if not, whether listed status is automatically reinstated once the structures are once again standing.
Then there are local interest groups. Many have passionate, and often contradictory, ideas as to the form development should take; others are resistant to any change at all. Everybody has a right to be heard. The power of popular opinion to influence development is symptomatic of a flourishing democracy and can have a hugely positive impact. In retrospect it is probably a blessing that some of the proposals which have been put forward for King’s Cross over the years met public disapproval and foundered.
Argent Group’s designs have also been enriched by the complex consultation process. It is certainly the case that the community feels a greater sense of engagement with the current proposal than they have done with previous development plans. One of the secrets of Argent’s success has been Roger Madelin’s policy of making himself available to meet every interest group face-to-face, which, while unnecessary, has certainly increased the project’s popularity.
But while the process of negotiating heritage requirements and consulting with the community are important, they are also time-consuming, costly and entirely at odds with the government’s drive to make the planning system faster, more efficient and supportive of business. As well as diverting resources away from developing the best possible design for a particular site, such requirements tend to encourage conservative design. The fact that planning law gives third parties the right to a judicial challenge results in a very cautious planning system, in which most of the decisions concerning major schemes are made by planning lawyers, squeezing out time for design.
There is also a problem with the planning profession, which is lamentably short of planners who can both navigate the system on behalf of an applicant and provide constructive input, especially on design. To Argent’s great credit, it has emerged from the planning process with its ambitions more or less intact. But there are plenty of other projects throughout the capital which have been compromised beyond recognition or are struggling to survive.
When he was shooting Day for Night, the director Francois Truffaut said that when he embarked on a new project he was always determined to make the greatest movie ever made, but that by the time he was half way through shooting he would be content to get anything filmed and in the can. Anybody who has ever tried to get planning permission for a London project with any degree of ambition will know exactly how he feels.