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The Prince and the changing face of London

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Kurt Barling | 10:26 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

It's quite rare for a High Court judge to reveal the mores of royalty. Even rarer to get involved in the debate about how London's skyline might change over the next few decades.

Prince Charles. Getty ImagesPerhaps inadvertently that's the territory Mr Justice Vos strayed into last week when he released a letter to the public that had been written and personally signed by the Prince of Wales to Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, The Qatar Prime Minister and cousin to the ruling Emir of Qatar.

The Prince then pressed his case in person over tea with his close friend the Emir. The upshot, the Prince was making it clear he seriously disliked the plans on the table for the Chelsea Barracks development.

The plans that had been designed and developed for the site by Lord Richard Rogers' architectural practice were in keeping with his modernist aesthetic. Within three months of the letter the planning application to Westminster Council was withdrawn.

The Candy brothers, who have rocketed to being big players in the development of high value real estate in London through their company CPC, sued for early payment of over 68 million pounds worth of fees.

The Candy's alleged that Qatari Diar, the real estate arm of the Qatari Investment Authority, acted in bad faith by withdrawing from the project that CPC had effectively put together.

Mr Justice Vos' judgement said that there was no bad faith and there should be no early payment of fees. Perhaps the pursuit of early payment tells us something about the sluggish real estate market even at the top end of the market.

Ironically the Candy's may still get their fee, just not early.

Anyway the dispute brought into sharp focus the intervention of the Prince of Wales in the planning process. Many architects believe that by using private channels to scupper the development project, rather than the public consultation process, the Prince is having an unacceptable and inordinate influence on the future face of London.

Unsurprisingly Lord Rogers and a number of Royal Institute of British Architects spokespeople have been hopping mad ever since.

The Prince's officials counter that the Prince is a man of passion and principle and is entitled to his views. The big question for many is where and how those views should be ventilated, particularly if they are in the public interest.

If it's a matter of public interest, public consultation is the tried and tested route of determining how London's skyline and streetscape should look.

When a judge says, "both Qatari Diar and CPC were faced with a very difficult position once the Prince of Wales intervened in the planning process in March 2009", you can be sure this is a constitutional observation.

The judge is saying the Prince mucked up the accountability of the planning process on this particular development.

The London skyline and streetscape has been through many transitions over the past few hundred years and the fact that international investors still want to come here speaks volumes for the global status of the capital.

Natural resource rich Emirates and Kingdoms see London real estate as a good long-term investment, they also use London based expertise in other markets. It is part of the price and reward we pay for that global status.

Qatari Diar has just published a new Masterplan proposal for the Chelsea Barracks site. They have retained big hitting consultants in public consultation.

A sign of how sensitive development on this scale has become. There are real efforts being made to solicit a broad cross-section of views on this plan.

Its tone is more traditional and the planning application may as a consequence be less controversial; it's due to be submitted by the autumn.

Shaping the capital is dependent on a planning system which has been prone to long delays and now we know outside interference. What this points to is a problem of accountability.

If we are to respect the City we live in, Londoners need to feel that there are systems in place to protect the collective interest.

Clearly the Chelsea Barracks development presents us with an opportunity to test just how robust and accountable London's planning regime is.

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