“This meddling member of the royal family is a black stain on our democracy,” wrote one reader of Building’s website
Others described Lord Rogers’ scheme as “a herringbone pattern of repetitive blocks with no sense of place” and his defence of it as “tantamount to treason”. Never has the death of a mere building project generated so much interest and emotion among the general public as the Chelsea Barracks redevelopment, and the Prince of Wales’ intervention that led to its withdrawal. In many ways it’s encouraging that architecture can still stir such passions. But the more we know about the scheme, the more it becomes apparent that it is much more than a modernists vs traditionalists Punch and Judy show. It has raised questions about the entire system we use to decide what goes where.
First, the Rogers design is not universally seen as great architecture, irrespective of which camp you sit in. So, many of those who are aggrieved by Charles’ intervention will not mourn the loss of the buildings themselves. But developer Qatari Diar paid £1bn for the site, so to recoup its investment it had to go for a high-density scheme, made denser still by the need to include a goodly amount of social housing. Any redesign will have to meet the same criterion, unless the developer provides more room for manoeuvre.
What about the planning system? Westminster council doesn’t come out of this affair looking great, does it? Was there sufficient scope for residents to get their views across? Why did the planning officers give the scheme a gleaming report but hold back from recommending it be given approval? What was going on behind the scenes? What was the part played by Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor, who’s been openly supportive of the group opposing Rogers? Anybody who has ever thought that planning is all about who you know will feel a sense of bitter vindication.
Then there’s Charles’ role. Does the end justify the means? Well if the ends look like the National Gallery extension or Paternoster Square, then the answer is probably no. And if the means involve ditching two years of work and putting 5,000 jobs on the line, then that’s got to be a moot point, too. Rogers is right to question whether Charles’ actions comply with our understanding of the rights and powers of a constitutional monarchy, particularly as we’ve just found out that Charles is regularly sent large London schemes to vet. It’s not clear how much control he has, but as the website comment said, this is certainly no way to run a democracy. Charles is entitled to his opinions, but if he’s operating as a shadowy one-man planning committee, then that starts to feel a little scary.
Anybody who has ever thought that planning is all about who you know will feel a sense of bitter vindication
Denise Chevin, editor
Stuck in the middle
The middle ground is a dangerous place for contractors. As we report, firms in the £100-400m turnover bracket are finding that size really does matter. The problem is that the nationals have started bidding for their £10-30m jobs and it’s hard to see how they can retaliate. Compounding the problem is the fact that they tend to work for medium-sized clients, which are more likely to face cash flow problems of their own.
This ought to matter to clients, because mid-sized firms are frequently innovative, skillful and good to work with. But it’s hard for them to show enlightened self-interest at the moment. As Richard Kelly, a partner in accountant BDO Stoy Hayward, says: “No procurement officer ever got fired for hiring IBM.” If nothing is done, then medium-sized companies may be forced to win work by cutting prices, which, as everyone knows, is even more dangerous ground to be on.