A bridge (not) too far…

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not instructed to represent the promoters of the Garden Bridge. I don’t have shares in an urban gardening company, a bridge engineering practice, real estate on the Embankment, or even a back-catalogue of Absolutely Fabulous. I have a healthy respect for Gurkhas, but I wouldn’t necessary cross the Thames to say as much.

What I do have is a recent passport stamp from a visit to New York; evidence of a recent summer holiday stop-over in Manhattan. There were two outstanding highlights for family Anderson; firstly, dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where I got involved in a passingly decent version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ with Connie from Seattle, who was ‘in between’ Broadway shows, and was wasted serving burgers and chips. My contribution was principally confined to shaking, as opposed to singing, but despite my youngest thinking I was having a minor seizure, I’m pretty sure my fellow diners credited me with helping Connie through some of the trickier elements of the verse – especially the rap.

The second highlight (and there wasn’t an alcoholic drink in sight) was the High Line. The High Line probably now needs no introduction, so I will simply say that it is the greatest, coolest thing presently in Manhattan. Where its structure once blighted large tracts of the City, with its crude, elevated railway infrastructure disrupting streets, sight lines, and causing noise and vibration, it now brings vitality, interest, and people to everything it touches. It is an ecological breath of fresh air in the steaming metropolis that really does never sleep (London still does). It’s 1.5 miles in length, and perhaps more pertinently, it’s 15 metres in width. The structure is teeming with a smorgasbord of hard and soft landscaping; a linear Chelsea garden show if you will, albeit all-year round. It’s free to visit, to frequent and enjoy. Landowners and occupiers who once looked on their lot as grey, sterile and third-rate, now have the best seats in the house. It is an asset that New Yorkers are rightly proud of.

Which brings me to the Garden Bridge. Somehow, this imaginative, compelling proposal has become tainted, caught up in local borough politics, and the source of angst from others, notably the Architects Journal. I will let those with more than a civic interest in the project defend or justify the procurement strategy, other than to say that at a projected cost of £175 million, with private contributions limiting the state’s investment to £60 million, this looks to be an absolute no-brainer. People have said that it will do for the northern Embankment what the Millenium Bridge did for the Southbank, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. It will be an experience all of itself, as well as providing improved access for pedestrians, be a focal point for tourists, and be a unique way to cross the Thames. Granted, it’s not the re-use of an elevated railway line, but the High Line is something to be inspired by – not to mimic. I am convinced that the Garden Bridge can have the same transformational effect as what has taken place across the pond. Now all we need is to come up with our own version of Ellen’s…

Award Delivery, Not Planning Permissions

The announcement by think tank Civitas that developers are to blame for not turning a sufficient number of planning consents into bricks and mortar is both depressing and predictable, as much for the inability of the development industry to rid these misnomers as the article itself.

No one would doubt that local authorities are stretched, and that many departments are performing superbly against a backdrop of budget cuts.  We know this at first hand, and if I’m bribed enough, I’ll put their names up in lights so that they can get due recognition.

However, the fact of the matter is that we have a system that awards planning permissions and not delivery.  Authorities are judged on their performance in determining quantity, and not quality of permissions, so those household applications for new loft conversions don’t half polish up the performance figures. But more pertinently, once applications have been through the prescribed application cycle, officers are obliged to prioritise the next batch in the system, rather than see projects through to completion. So the myriad of pre-commencement conditions takes an age to discharge, not least because of the docile mindset of statutory consultees that shotgun the system.

Legal agreements, particularly relating to highway issues, gather dust during the drafting stage. I know from current experience of an application granted 18 months ago that is still stuck in the purgatory of pre-commencement. Our client is going puce with rage – and ironically, they get the blame for non-performance. There is literally nothing more that they can do within the confines of the system.

However, I do take heart from the publication this week of the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, which is the Government’s acknowledgment of the need to curb the relentless tide of pre-commencement conditions, which in part, is the bi-product of one of my ever-bashful colleague’s engagement with Treasury and CLG officials during the course of last year. Jamie Sullivan, one of Iceni’s associates, undertook a secondment to HM Treasury, and ambushed them with a number of ideas that we had – influenced by consultation with our clients – to rid some of the gremlins in the system that well-meaning think tanks don’t write reports on. Pre-commencement was just one of them. Look out for the other 426 in due course.