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21/08/2015

Edstone’s slab-gate - or why standing stones gather no gloss

Words:
Chipping away at Stonehenge

A stoney-faced Chris Shepley considers the respective roles of planners and politicians in modern Britain

Chris ShepleyI have, on your behalf, got hold of a copy of the minutes of the Royal Academy of Tablets of Stone (Planning Committee), dated May 2015.

If you are unfamiliar with this organisation, it is a learned body dedicated to the protection of tablets of stone, both real and metaphorical, in the public interest. One stratum of RATS looks after the correct use of the well-known phrase or saying, and other clichés such as ‘stony-faced’ or ‘blood from a stone’. The other deals with the care, promulgation and reputation of tablets, monuments, plaques, memorials, Rolling Stones, and similar edifices, unless tainted with concrete.

In May the committee discussed the ludicrous slab which was a significant factor in the defeat of the Labour Party at the election. The ‘Edstone’ was clearly the product of the mind of an adviser whose education, while no doubt well regarded by Ofsted, had failed to bring him into even tangential contact with the real world.

This ridiculous object had, it was feared, brought the whole idea of slabs into disrepute. But the planning committee was particularly concerned with the aborted plan to erect the tablet in the garden of 10 Downing Street, the argument that this would have needed planning permission, and most particularly the reported comments of Robert Davis, the Conservative Chair of Westminster City Council’s Planning Committee. He apparently opined that the stone would be unlikely to get permission because “The fact is that the committee which would make the decision comprises three Conservatives and one Labour member, so you could probably guess without me telling you which way the decision would go”.

"Here was a clear indication that, in modern Britain, decisions had become entirely party political"

The chair wondered if his tongue had been in his cheek, but that would have been rare in a politician. It seemed that here was a clear indication that, in modern Britain, decisions had become entirely party political. No Tory would approve anything that Labour promoted, irrespective of the planning issues involved, and no doubt vice versa. Old considerations like whether the slab was detrimental to the setting of the listed building, would upset the amenity of the neighbours, cause highways problems, spoil the view of St Paul’s, or lead to noise and disturbance late at night (all of which to a greater or lesser extent could be relevant in this case), seemed to have been set aside. It was agreed that this was part of a trend. Political considerations (such as how a decision might affect an election) had become more prominent – even dominant.

Once, recalled an ancient planner on the committee, there had been a debate within the RTPI about whether planning was a political activity or a purely technocratic one. This seemed remarkable now – but had the politicians invaded decision-making to such an extent that objective analysis and the public interest had been completely overtaken by political expediency? Was Greg Dickson of Turley’s right when quoted in The Planner (June) as saying that “politics needs to take a step back and let planning take a lead”?

Ron Wood, representing the Rolling Stones on the committee, strongly agreed with this, but added “if I’m not being ultra vires, I think the Edstone is de minimis statutorily and jurisprudentially, but it’s only rock, and I like it”. An unhelpful remark, but nonetheless the committee’s deliberations must lead us all to consider anew the respective roles of politicians and planners, to deplore the way in which dispassionate advice and methodical examination are diminished, to reaffirm the ethical basis of planning. Which, in the form of our Code of Conduct, is set in tablets of stone.

Chris Shepley is prinicpal of Chris Shepley Planning and a former Chief Planning Inspector

ILLUSTRATION | OIVIND HOVLAND

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