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DAVID CURRY - NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH

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'Some malicious people who like to meddle in other people's affairs try to hinder those who construct buildings fro...
'Some malicious people who like to meddle in other people's affairs try to hinder those who construct buildings from which they can see their neighbours. We do not consider a view of one's neighbours to be a bad thing. Let he who thinks it is a bad thing take action to secure his own buildings and make them impregnable to the eyes of strangers by installing what we call open railings or with movable shutters or in any way he thinks fit.'

Lord Rogers of Riverside on the need for greater density in urban design? John Prescott on the key to sustainable communities? The new-look Tory policy on house building? Well, no actually. It's a bit earlier than that: approximately 1,100 years earlier. It comes from Julian of Askalan in the Book of the Eparch, compiled in Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, around 911AD.

I came across the quotation on an information plaque amid the ruins of the Byzantine city of Mystra, constructed on a rock which rises almost vertically out of the plain a couple of miles from the ancient site of Sparta. Space was so short that one of the planning rules was that houses had to be built over arcades to leave open public space at ground level for passage, trade and recreation. The last Byzantine emperor was crowned in the tiny cathedral in Mystra, a few years before he died in the desperate last stand on the walls of Constantinople against the victorious Ottomans, so the ruins resonate with a powerful sense of history.

Julian's strictures put me in mind of housing minister Yvette Cooper. She published the latest package of government changes to the planning system just before Easter. It is hardly hold-the-front-page stuff. It requires most planning applications to be accompanied by a design and access statement; finally grasps the nettle of expansion of retailing into mezzanine floors; and extends the time planning authorities have before applicants can appeal on the grounds of non-determination from eight to 13 weeks.

But the bit which caught my eye was the introduction of a sort of mini-zoning in the shape of local development orders. These will set a framework for developments which can be carried out without planning permission. It could be projects to infill an industrial estate or a supermarket site. But it will also apply to small-scale works affecting domestic householders, where there are large numbers of similar properties. Given that some 350,000 of the 650,000 planning applications a year are from households, this is an attempt to clear away some of the clutter of routine paperwork clogging planning departments.

This makes sense: planning departments are finding recruitment hard and some get by thanks to the services of passers-through on short-term contracts.

The direction of travel is interesting. One of the most consistent themes of commentary on the planning system from housing expert Kate Barker to the House Builders Confederation has been the need to get away from the idea of planning control and substitute that of development management.

Since councils are in the throes of preparing the local development framework, the idea is obviously to get them to build these orders into the consultation process on the wider framework which has to be completed by 2007. In historically or architecturally sensitive areas councils might well want to link orders with design guidance.

While I can see the sense behind the move, I have to confess to a warning tingle of trepidation. Few things excite my constituents so much as planning - usually an enthusiasm to stop something somebody else

wants to do.

With memories of the battles over leylandii hedges fresh in my mind I have visions of conservatory wars breaking out across the back gardens of my constituency, patio politics disturbing the car-washing peace of the Sunday morning and an unaccountable surge in the demand for granny annexes - all, no doubt, taking light from the neighbours' living room and affording a clear view into their main double-bedroom.

As Julian might have said, neighbours can be such fun

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