Architects must be more honest about their own failings

Last week’s ruling in the Chelsea Barracks saga has reignited the debate about Prince Charles’ influence on architecture. RIBA president Ruth Reed lambasted the prince by claiming that he had “derailed” a project that was proceeding through a “democratic planning process”. Earlier, Richard Rogers had grimly stated his desire not to live in a “feudal society”.

What both these comments ignore is that it was Qatari Diar and the Qatari royal family who were entirely responsible for the decision to withdraw the application, not the Prince of Wales. Charles regularly bombards developers with his opinions and they are entirely free to ignore him, as they often do.

This is not the symptom of a feudal society. Our planning system and the architectural establishment itself are. To label our planning system democratic carries about as much intellectual credibility as claiming that trial verdicts are delivered by public opinion simply because courtrooms have public galleries. There is no democracy in a process that does nothing to encourage public debate, where voting power is restricted to a cabal of councillors, where unelected quangos wield statutory power, where professional recommendations are routinely ignored, and localised self-interest is often given undue priority.

Equally, it is hypocritical of the architectural establishment to accuse the prince of subverting democracy when so many seem so unwilling to entertain the wider public debate that might be sparked by a view contrary to their own. Several architects called for a boycott of the prince’s speech to the RIBA Trust annual lecture last year. Since when did intellectual censorship promote democracy?

It is regrettable, though perhaps unsurprising, that many within the architectural elite choose to demonise Prince Charles rather than acknowledge the failings in the Rogers scheme, the planning system and their own profession. Perhaps the most potent lesson of this saga will be to remind us all that common enemies are always easier to face than inner demons.