Here’s the inspiring story of one man’s extraordinary, insane, visionary quest to attach a small illuminated sign to the side of a listed building

Answerphone message. “I’ve given your name to someone.” This is the sort of call that is the lifeblood of self-employed people everywhere. Actually it usually turns out not to be, but there’s always the chance. “You know that South Kensington Tube station has just been listed,” continued my caller, who is one of those women in the historic buildings business who makes people jump. “Well, we have a friend who is a sweet man who has just taken over the carpet shop in the arcade over the station, and is opening a pharmacy.”

Oh God, I thought, a chemist has leased one of those units and now he’s discovered he needs listed building consent before he can change the locks on the doors. “And he’s going to need listed building consent for some things he wants to do and I’ve told him you’re the man to see.” Right.

Although my client would, I am sure, like to have me make him a fabulous Edwardian pharmacy with globe lights on brass stalks and tall flasks with spherical bottoms three-quarters filled with twinkling turquoise liquid, what he needs in the short term (that is, now) is a sign on the outside of the station that tells his junkie clients that they can now fill their scripts from his emporium within the portals of the Edwardian arcade.

So let us start with getting consent for a sign. Somewhere in the back of my brain a mantra is being recited about the architect’s job being 1% inspiration and 99% administration, and I could just see all those bureaucrats lining up to slice their red pencils through my proposals.

We’ll need the say-so of English Heritage of course, which will be proud, and protective, of the newest feather in its cap. Then there will be the planning authority. Now, nothing about this job is going to involve anything that needs planning, but listed building matters are dealt with through the planning authority, so 14 copies of all plans will go to it. And, as this is a pharmacy, my client is going to want one of those little green signs that is illuminated, isn’t he? Which is highways. And it will project over the pavement, so that will be building control.

I could just see all those bureaucrats lining up to slice their red pencils through my proposals

Actually, a glowing green cross about eight inches square would look excellent mounted at a high level on the centre of one of the pilasters that flank the free-standing columns, built in the 1910 London Transport Tuscan style, at the entrance to the arcade. However, obtaining consent for this important, but not actually expensive, sign would be difficult enough with an identifiable landlord. And is the landlord here going to be an identifiable owner with a helpful surveyor who is keen to help you improve his client’s property gratis? Of course not. The landlord is Transport for London.

“No, you’ll never get permission for an illuminated sign,” says the first surveyor whose name I have been given. “It’s against policy; you’ll have to check with facilities.” Facilities tell me: “You should be all right with a back-lit sign as it’s on the street, but you’ll have to check with properties.” Properties say: “We might allow neon if it’s not too bright, but you’ll need consent from the infraco.” And an intermediary between the surveyors and the infraco duly informs me: “It depends on the light levels. Oh, and we have a fire section that’s interested in electrical fittings, but they don’t know anything about listed buildings.”

Unfortunately I can only keep this line of enquiry up for three hours before I feel the need to do something productive. If this is what they think about an itty-bitty green sign, how am I going to broach the subject of making a 4 × 3 m opening in the central spine wall over platforms two and three? I realise – actually I probably knew the second I got the phone call – that getting consent (or not) for this sign is going to take me six months. Unfortunately I feel an stong obligation to clients who press money into my hands before I’ve even rendered an invoice so we have to plug on …

And they tell me that somewhere out in east London someone is going to build an entire Olympic village in a swamp with no transport connections and no services and it has to be handed it over in exactly six years …