Shepley on ... the unwarranted power of the pen in letters pages

They are thinking about knocking down a shopping centre in my town and replacing it with a new one. This seems like a good idea since the old one is singularly ugly, even though it was designed by a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The new one, which received permission a while ago, was designed by one of those architects who specialise in this type of project and whose motto is obviously "blandness be my friend". It may not challenge for prizes, but it needs to be done.

The scheme requires the demolition of various buildings, one of which is a pretty mundane mock-Georgian effort built in the 1920s for the local electricity company. There will be a building much like it in your town.

When permission was granted for its removal, English Heritage and its ilk were entirely content.

But recently a campaign to save it has appeared in the letters page of the local press, led by a councillor who clearly likes to see his name in the paper. Other councillors at first joined in, until it was pointed out that they had already voted in favour of the scheme. They came to realise that claiming they had not understood the implications at the time, rather than helping the campaign, merely made them look ridiculous.

However, the leader of the protest continues to pen lengthy letters to the paper on an almost daily basis. His latest line of attack is that there is an unexploded bomb on the site dating from 1942. Various elderly folk with detailed memories of what happened 60 years ago have written in to support this theory. A second bomb is now postulated. Jerry was dropping his bombs in sticks of three, apparently. An image has been painted of these bombs burrowing underground and lying in wait for anyone who might have the nerve to promote the building's demolition.

This has no doubt caused a lot of unnecessary work for the planners and developers, who have had to deal with these and other fanciful arguments.

More importantly, perhaps, it is yet another demonstration of the unwarrantable power of the letters pages of local newspapers. It is my view that there is no more damaging form of public participation than this, and no greater inhibition to objectivity or progress.

Editors like letters because they are a cheap way to fill a page or two with controversy and provocation. But their self-selected writers, unlike those who have to respond to them, have no need or care for honesty or truth. Short of defamation, almost anything goes. Not being disposed towards censorship myself, I do not propose a ban on these letters. But I do propose that by statute, planners and councillors should be barred from reading them.

- Chris Shepley is principal of Chris Shepley Planning and a former chief planning inspector for England and Wales.


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