For those who don’t know the UK, our built environment is controlled by a set of planning laws. These started in the 1930s as rules to control advertising but by 1948 they impacted all buildings, new and old, as well as mining and engineering (bridges, roads, railways) projects.
One early successful attempt to circumvent these was the construction of a new factory on the South Bank of the Thames. It produced a stock cube, OXO. The company couldn’t put a sign or hoarding to advertise their product so instead they designed the windows in the tower to spell out the name. When lit at night it could be seen for miles!
I walked past the tower yesterday which was enough of a trigger to remind me of some of the planning problems with which I had to grapple during my legal career. One such involved a a rather ghastly 1970s tower block next to Victoria Railway station where my walk started.
These days it is a glossy piece of sharp-sided architecture…
but when I came across it in the early 1980s it was tired and in need of love. It was the headquarters of a large sand and gravel quarrying operation, and I was negotiating a lease of several floors to my clients. The in-house lawyer acting for the owner showed me into a meeting room on the management floors at the top and left me to myself for a few minutes. As you do when in a tower (unless you suffer from vertigo) you wander to the windows.
It was a crisp clear day and you could see for miles across the London parks and landmarks.
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ I hadn’t heard him come back in, clutching some fat file which was like a security blanket for lawyers in days before computers.
‘Posh neighbours,’ I proffered.
To my surprise, he winced. You see, down below laid out in all its spendour were the gardens and outside areas of Buckingham Palace, an area usually kept private from public gaze.
‘You wouldn’t believe’ he began, before stopping himself, flopping into a seat and I’m pretty sure, mopping his brow. He looked up with what might be described as a jaundiced gaze. ‘I’m not in favour of this letting, you know. It’ll be nothing but trouble.’
To say I was surprised would be something of an understatement. My client was a large American business with an impeccable back story, the sort of client most landlords bit off hands to secure. They were prompt in rental payments and would only add value to the holding.
He seemed to grasp he needed to say more. ‘Obviously it’s not your client, per se…’
I gave a knowing smile. ‘Naturally…’
‘Any tenant will have nightmares.’ Pause. ‘We have… we still do.’
‘The neighbours. When we were dealing with the local authority on planning, one thing they were neurotic about was maintaining the privacy of the Royals. The controls were exceptional. One condition of building this tower was that they wanted the whole side to be opaque glass.’
I looked at the view. He nodded. ‘We managed to get it removed. In return we had to agree that no photos or films or similar image capture technology would be used.’
‘That must have been a relief.’
‘Until we moved in. At the end of our first week our in-house magazine had a picture of the palace and gardens with the headline ‘Look who we have as neighbours!’
‘Oh, that must have been embarrassing.’
Another wince. ‘Oh yes. Management went potty. The editor was sacked…’
I wanted to offer ‘defenestrated’ but he didn’t seem in the mood for jokes.
‘… but somehow a copy found its way into the hands of the palace. The Chief Executive and Chairman were asked to pop in for a chat…’
The silence lingered. ‘What happened,’ I eventually prompted.
‘They never said, but I’ve seen them deal with rebellious shareholders and blood sucking rivals but I’ve never seen them looking so pale and sombre as when they returned. They just said we mustn’t let it happen again.’
‘I don’t think you want to know, Mr Le Pard, but it would be good if you could emphasize the importance of compliance with these planning conditions. I really wouldn’t want your clients to go through what we went through. Now, coffee?’