A lack of consistent training or doctrine among council officers is hindering the development of small-scale building projects in conservation areas, regardless of how good they happen to be

Last week I went to Stephen Emanuel’s opening in Exeter. Stephen is an old university friend of mine who set up a practice in Dartmoor 20 years ago. He’d just finished his own small development and was having a party to celebrate.

It’s useful for architects to do their own developments. It gives them a taste of life on the front line. There’s nothing like paying for things out of your own pocket to give you a realistic idea of what value means, and this enables you to advise your clients better.

When I got there, I found a beautifully remodelled 1940s light industrial building that was shortly to be occupied by its first batch of tenants. It had a simple slate roof, was painted an elegant shade of cream with powder-coated metal windows and opened on to a simple courtyard. I saw the before photos, which showed an undecorated concrete block shed with a corrugated asbestos roof and steel windows installed, for some reason, upside down. “Well, Stephen,” I said. “The planners must have been delighted.”

“You’d think so,” he replied ruefully, directing me to a large cardboard box behind the bottles of chilled viognier and plates of sushi. This enclosed the planning history. He had bought the property at auction five years ago. It had formerly been a workshop vaguely connected to a motor business, but alterations to the council’s road programme meant vehicles above a certain size could no longer get to it, so it had lain vacant for 10 years.

“Well, it took four planning applications and three appeals,” said Stephen. “I ended up doing a planning application gratis for the chap in the building behind in exchange for him letting me tee off his water main, as the local water company was going to charge me £32,000 for a new supply. It’s not listed and it must have been the ugliest building in the conservation area. It’s almost exactly the same shape as it was and it’s now built of better materials. Of course, now it’s done, everyone says how bloody marvellous it is.”

All architects and their clients have been here. One appeals inspector agrees that although it is a brownfield site appropriate for residential development, he doesn’t like the fact that there are no openings in the north-facing wall (it is virtually a party wall). Another says the replacement of corrugated asbestos detracts from the mixed appearance of the conservation area. A third says raising the ridge by 450 mm destroys the integrity of the existing shed.

The only way an applicant will find out where conservation officers are coming from is when they read the reports that accompany the refusals

What is so dispiriting is that this is a proposal submitted by someone local who is sensitive to the site and who is a professional designer. The development constitutes a change of use that is largely within the council’s strategic guidelines. It replaces a redundant industrial brownfield site with a use that complements all the surrounding houses. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the existing building has no architectural merit.

Perhaps architects are the only people optimistic enough to take on this sort of work. “If I’d had a client to bill, it would have been half the building cost,” Stephen told me.

It is hard to reconcile the difficulties a developer has to encounter at this level with the large-scale clearance of attractive, but unprotected, buildings and their replacement with design-free schlock, visible almost everywhere. Economies of scale mean it is less expensive to argue the planning toss with one large development than hundreds of small ones, a state of affairs that the conservation movement was set up to discourage.

And what exactly entitles someone to practise as a design or conservation office?

My experience is that they enjoy no consistency in training or outlook and the only way an applicant will find out where they are coming from is when they read the reports that accompany the refusals.

I recently submitted a planning application to build a small development in my garden and that of my neighbour. I have completed nine building and refurbishment projects within two minutes’ walk of the site. Five of these involve listed buildings. The planning officer rang me last week to recommend that I withdrew the scheme as otherwise they wouldn’t have time to deal with it, so would have to refuse it. “Anyway,” he said, as if to cheer me up. “I’ll send you a list of things the conservation officer is not happy about.”