Debacle over Sphere in London spotlights UK’s problem with planning

London: “We can’t keep banging our heads against the wall,” said James Dolan, the billionaire owner of New York’s Madison Square Garden arena, who last week abandoned a five-year effort to build a glowing orb concert venue taller than St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Trump donor, who also owns the New York Knicks basketball team and built his first Sphere venue in Las Vegas, had foundered on the craggy rocks of the UK’s planning system – the same one that took more than eight years to approve a fifth terminal for Heathrow airport and fails to build enough affordable housing but allows forests of speculative skyscrapers to stand partly empty.

In barbed statements announcing it was taking its Sphere elsewhere (possibly Abu Dhabi), Dolan’s company said it would instead seek “forward-thinking cities” and accused the authorities of treating its proposal as “a political football”. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, had started out welcoming the “world-class venue” only to turn against it as having “an unacceptable negative impact on local residents”.

The scheme was strongly opposed, not just by local residents, but also the rival AEG group, which runs a large concert venue inside the nearby O2 arena in Greenwich. But whatever the view of its merits, the episode adds weight to an increasingly urgent question: has planning in the UK lost its way?

“The British planning system is probably at the weakest it’s been since it’s creation,” Peter Rees, who for 29 years was the chief planner for the corporation of London, said. “It has been emasculated by various politicians from Gordon Brown onwards.”

Rees is one of the most respected planners in Britain today. From 1985 to 2014 he oversaw the Square Mile’s transformation from staid ancient banking quarter into today’s gleaming global financial hub. He oversaw the erection of 21st-century landmark towers such as the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel.

Planning has become highly politicised, he said, with power shifting too far from expert officials to non-expert councillors and government ministers, with the result that “it is very much a casino”.

Rees contrasted it to the “can-do” attitude of professional planning that delivered new towns in the 1960s and 1970s, a timely reference as Labour is pledging to build new towns if it wins the coming general election.

“Since then it’s become over-political,” said Rees, now professor of places and city planning at University College London. “The consequence is that it is almost impossible to know in advance which way a planning application will go.”

Successive governments have seen planning as a lever to deliver economic growth, and weakened rules in an effort to “get the planning system out of the way”, he said.

“If you are going to have a planning system based on rules, a planning application should pass or fail,” he said. “What we don’t want is debate in political forums where politicians can do favours. That’s what causes the disrepute [in the system].”

When Dolan proposed the Sphere, the culture secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, was effusive in his support, saying it “cements both the capital and UK’s reputation for leading the world in music and the creative industries”. But with Hancock gone and Khan changing his mind after closer scrutiny, the scheme was dead.

So developers who used to focus on building relationships with professional planners to get their schemes approved increasingly target non-expert elected politicians who are the ultimate arbiters, industry sources say.

“If you go to New York there’s a clear set of rules so everyone knows where they are,” said Peter Stewart, a former government design adviser and now a consultant to developers seeking planning approvals. “[In the UK] planning policy guidance, national, local and in London says things that when unpicked and scrutinised turn out to be air. Everything is negotiable. When foreign investors come forward and say can we do something or can’t we, you have to say: ‘It depends’. In other words, it is a gamble.”

There has been a change in architectural fashions too, which Dolan perhaps did not grasp.

“In big commercial development there’s less appetite for jazziness and there’s a trend for sobriety,” Stewart said.

The winners of the annual Stirling prize for Britain’s best building are more often calm studies in brick and block than the shiny architectural gymnastics of earlier years when clients and planners were hungry for “iconic” architecture.

And the climate emergency has become a big issue in planning departments, which are increasingly concerned about the carbon embodied in new proposals – hence Marks & Spencer was last year refused permission to rebuild from scratch its store on Oxford Street.