Here we see the damage Kate Barker's review of the planning system has caused a London scheme and the threat it has posed to one company's future
The block of flats in the second picture is 32 storeys high, has 50% affordable housing and a flat top; the block in the third picture is 12 storeys lower, has 35% affordable housing and a sloping top. That much is obvious. But the real difference between them is three years, 60 jobs and a whole lot of money. That's what it has cost developer London Town to bring the design proposals pictured on the left through the planning system to its present incarnation on the right.

The battle to win permission to develop 28 apartments in the shadow of London's Tate Modern at Hopton Street is not over yet, as residents this month lodged their latest appeal. But London Town is now convinced that it has won the war, and that the Appeal Court action being mounted by residents is the final shot in their locker.

Even if it is, the struggle with locals residents has left London Town reeling. The company is a project manager and relies on investor backing to fund its schemes; that backing has been hit badly by the battle for Hopton Street. "It has been massively damaging to our investors, shareholders and staff," says Peter Harris, former director of development with the company, and now retained as a consultant to deliver the Hopton Street project. "London Town was never a large company in terms of cash and resources, but worked with investors to develop sites. Through that period nobody would invest because we couldn't deliver the sites."

Harris resigned from the company a year ago, along with chief executive Jonathan Buchanan, indirectly as a result of the Hopton Street battle. By the time he left, Harris had already had to go through the sorry task of making many of his colleagues redundant – the company reported a pre-tax loss of £3m for 2002, and two-thirds of staff lost their jobs.

"We were too small a company to take such a large planning risk. The likes of Berkeley could have seen it through easily, " says Harris. "But it is only 28 flats." He repeats this line several times throughout the interview, as if he still can't quite believe that such a small scheme could have generated so much heartache.

The company had not reckoned on encountering such strong opposition from local residents, who formed themselves into the pressure group, Bankside Residents For Appropriate Development (BROAD) and have consistently argued that the site should not be developed at all, but should rather be made into an open square for public use. There was also vociferous opposition from Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, who was against building in his own backyard – he claimed it was "the equivalent of building a tower block in the forecourt of the British Museum".

All this has taught me many things, corporately – dealing with the press and the planning environment. Personally, I feel a much better person for it

Peter Harris

When London Town bought the site in December 2000 it was a slightly bullish upstart on the London property scene with some highly regarded projects under its belt. It appointed high-calibre architects in the form of Philip Gumuchdjian and Kevin Dash Associates to generate a design for a glass-fronted, slender tower. "We expected it would take 18 to 24 months to get consent," says Harris. "We knew we were proposing something novel. But we didn't expect to get the reaction we did from the Tate and specifically from Sir Nicholas Serota." London Town amended the design, securing the backing of English Heritage, the City of London, the Greater London Authority, Southwark council planning officers and Cabe. That did little to change Serota's opinion – despite his being a Cabe commissioner – and he continued to oppose the scheme, leading demonstrators in a public protest last year.

Southwark planning officer support was not enough to win the scheme planning approval either, as the planning committee voted against officer recommendation. That was a disappointing moment, says Harris: "When there are complexities to a site, like rights of light and daylighting, planning officers are the only people with the time and knowledge to go through them properly. When committee members ignore officers to such an extent I feel let down."

Nonetheless Harris, who is an architect by training, defends the rights of local residents to question development. "The residents, and BROAD specifically, were well-organised and well-represented. We didn't object to the residents forcing an appeal and to the public inquiry – the public inquiry opened [the development] up to stringent investigation. But it was unnecessary to go to the High Court, and for the Tate to support that was wrong. It shows that objectors can force a refusal at local authority level. If you want to frustrate the process further, you can do so for as much as two years on spurious grounds. The enablement of development seems to have been missed. Now it is all about stopping development."

Pending the decision in the Appeal Court, Hopton Street is still on hold. "The planning inspectorate will benefit from a precedent being set in the appeal," says Harris. He is confident that the company will finally be able to claim victory when the appeal comes to court later this year.

Unfortunately for him, BROAD is equally confident of winning. "The residents are united in believing that this site represents a unique opportunity to create a rare public space," says David Lough, chairman of BROAD. "We are represented by Richard Clayton QC, one of the country's leading experts on the Human Rights Act. He will be pressing home our case that the rights of surrounding residents would be unfairly harmed if the proposed tower went ahead."

Looking back over the past three years, Harris doesn't believe that London Town could have done anything differently to counter the fear and enmity of the local community. "We had at least 10 public consultations. We couldn't have involved the public more," he says ruefully.

Spot the difference?

December 2000 London Town unconditionally buys 0.1 ha site at Hopton Street, which is sandwiched between the Bankside Tate, a 1990s Manhattan Lofts development called Bankside Lofts, and a 1970s residential scheme called Falcon Point.

June 2001 London Town, under the name of Bankside Developments, submits a planning application for a 29-storey building with an open podium.

Summer 2001 Cabe and the GLA express concern over the proposed height of the building, which is the same as the Tate Modern chimney. CABE wants it to be either higher or lower than the chimney, whereas GLA wants it to be higher, to produce more affordable housing.

August 2001 Bankside Developments submits application for a 32-storey design, with 50% affordable housing.

December 2001 Bankside Developments withdraws its planning application when it becomes clear that Southwark council planning officers will not support it because of its height.

January-June 2002 Bankside Developments and its designers work with Southwark planning officers to come up with an acceptable design. June 2002 Bankside Developments submits an application for a 20-storey building, sloping up and away from the river. It comprises three floors of office space, 19 apartments for private sale and nine affordable flats. Planning officers give their support to the design.

October 2002 Application goes to committee. Chief planning officer tells the committee that it would be unlikely to win any appeal. The committee rejects the application by seven to one over concerns about the distance between the tower and the surrounding buildings, and its impact.

May 2003 Bankside Developments’ appeal goes to public inquiry over six days.

June 2003 Planning inspector decides in Bankside’s favour and says: “The view of a modern building of outstanding design would be wholly complementary to a gallery of modern art.” He says Tate’s objections appear to be driven by hopes of using the open space beside the gallery.

December 2003 Local pressure group BROAD takes the case to the High Court, saying the inspector did not consider the diminution of the value of their property. It applies the Human Rights Act to claim that the rights of surrounding residents will be harmed by the tower.

January 2004 Mr Justice Collins dismisses BROAD’s claims. But as the government’s planning inspectorate raises no objection to an appeal going ahead, Mr Justice Collins grants BROAD leave to appeal.

February 2004 BROAD lodges an appeal.

More tales of woe

Bromley brouhaha
Barratt wanted to develop a modern 81-apartment mixed-use design by architect Goddard Manton Partnership on the Bristol Street Motors site. The design (pictured) was enthusiastically received by Bromley council’s architectural panel of planning officers and members and got the thumbs-up from local people when it went on public exhibition. The housebuilder made a few tweaks at the council’s request, but the planning committee still went on to refuse consent – twice. Planning officers said that the members wanted something smaller and more traditional, so Barratt had DHA Architects produce this 59-unit design. Outline consent has finally been granted.

Hell in Hull
McCarthy & Stone frequently faces problems with local authorities because they fail to take into account the specialised nature of its retirement schemes. For example, at Cottingham in Hull it has been refused planning consent partly on the bizarre grounds of not providing enough play areas – for its elderly residents. The issue was resolved on reapplication. The case follows a recent battle with the local authority in Lee-on-the-Solent in Hampshire, which wanted a large number of bicycle parking bays provided on site.

North-west no-go
The North-west continues to be something of a no-go area for housebuilding, as local planning authorities continue to reject residential applications on the grounds that they have met their targets and do not need to grant any more planning permissions until 2006. More than 10 authorities across Merseyside, Manchester, Staffordshire and Cheshire have followed the example that was initially set by West Lancashire council. “We are either working with authorities where we can build or buying sites that have got consent,” says Philip Davies, chief executive of Linden.

A world where nothing works