Friday, 10 December 2021

Planning: A Cri de Coeur

Despite a frequent commentary that working from home has improved staff satisfaction and not compromised efficiency I just don’t buy it. 


My own view is very much the converse with observed efficiency (measured in the private sector by staff charge out hours) that could be down as much as 25%. And this  parallels the studies of, for example, Goldman Sachs. 


I don’t deny for a minute that Teams & Zoom have a place and are a welcome addition to a working armoury. They can be ideal for well structured meetings, with an effective Chair among people who know each other; and, for whom there are significant disbenefits of travel. But for developing three dimensional relationships, team problem solving and mentoring junior staff forget it. And that is ignoring the potential mental health disbenefits of isolation. A hybrid model can work, but to maintain team bonding the balance should be well in favour of office working in my opinion.


A lot of my work involves liaising with local authority Planning Departments  - after all my principal task is getting planning permission for clients and there is a monopoly supplier in each District, so I have nowhere else to go. And here the delays are mountainous. I think it can be attributed to a number of reasons:


A significant increase in workload, especially from house extensions, as people need more space working from home and with not spending money on other things like holidays and going out as they can’t or don’t want to. They have more money to develop their home.


Development is divisive. More people work from home and have more time and knowledge about neighbours' development. And then they complain to the Planning Authority. The same goes for local communities with greater use of social media platforms to complain. Covid has been a petri dish for key board warriors – its all too easy.This creates more enforcement work for Council Planning Departments.

The scale of development needed to support the Government’s growth agenda means many councils, especially in the big cities and the South-East, have been expected to plan for a much increased number of dwellings. Equally, the complexity of the work load has expanded. Currently, the largest growth area is biodiversity, with most of my major schemes (and sometimes even one house proposals) being held up while we wrestle with greater red lists for protection to accommodating a 10% gainwhich is already being implemented by many Councils. 

The increased importance on design (which I warmly applaud) means that the necessary skills are insufficient in current Council Planning departments. And this brings more work as well. Difficulties in getting materials, as another byproduct of Covid, has led to more changing and therefore more repeated discharge of conditions applications.Using Teams for Design Workshops or Design Review Panels is really not great.

Planning departments are income centres with many Councils over the last few years forced to economise on both staff and training (on matters as diverse as design and biodiversity), so have to make money from fees to support other parts of the Councils' work. This leads to lower morale and poorer trained planning staff, who can rarely go on courses. A self perpetuating downward spiral. Chickens particularly come home to roost in a Covid world, where isolation means on the job training and team building are severely compromised. How can anyone undertake a proper induction remotely?

A further impact in some authorities is a deteriorating relationship between officers and Councillors. It is not unheard of for Councillors to not have inhibitions about pressurising officers to change their professional recommendations. You don’t have to have too many of those instances for morale to slump further and encourage changes of jobs or early retirement.   And this in a context where we have not trained enough planners anyway over the years. Early retirement in particular, means the most experienced leave, which further reduces efficiencies and leaves gaps in the training of juniors, who do not have sufficient mentors.

Fear of making mistakes in this environment, but also at Planning Inspectorate decision making level, means it is easier and quicker to refuse an application. It is much harder to be blamed for a bad decision that is actually built, while decision making targets can be more easily met. For example, I would wager that the quality of planning appeal submissions has improved, but the success rate for applicants has virtually consistently declined in recent years.

In planning the imperative is (or should be) to make a balanced judgement. The Planning Balance can be a very hard exercise. One is nearly always evaluating a wide variety of qualitative factors (not quantitive with a measurable numerical calculation). This means you need the wisdom of Solomon. And for that you need experienced, well trained and motivated staff on both the public and private sides. As a society we are not getting the quality of planning professionals we either need or deserve, nor is the public service being adequately fundedAs most developments will be around in one form or another for a number of generations this must be rectified as soon as possible to be sustainable.


Thursday, 4 November 2021

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”

This was the opening quote on a night at The Depot, Leicester discussing The Future of City Centres” at the latest Landmark Planning organised free seminar for property professionals.

Large full width watercolor illustration of the regenerated St. George's Quarter in Leicester, shows a fresh modern city scene

The key message was that City Centres have constantly changed over the centuries as  they respond to different threats and opportunities. And the pandemic is merely another shock, albeit a large one. 50 years ago Leicester’s City centre and surrounds was home to Corah, Wolsey, Byfords and 100s of smaller manufacturers, with an adopted City slogan of “Leicester Clothes the World”. The City centre moved on and by the last  was becoming as successful and prosperous as before, with a very different economic rationale. It will do so again.

The event was the third of a trilogy, as part of the Love Architecture festival. Sir Peter Soulsby had presented the public sector response for principally the public realm, then, at the second event, Nick Marchini showed a private sector response with the redevelopment and repurposing of an Oxford Shopping Centre.

The ambition of the third evening was to link these physical responses to the users and potential users of City centres. It did this by first of all Rob Harland of Loughborough University talking about the mesographic level: namely how people experience and relate to City centres and their physical attributes through a variety of images, particularly at the human scale. 

This led naturally onto three successful City centre entrepreneurs Hamza Bodhaniya (Obstrat), Bill Allingham (Steamin Billy) and Pete Gardner (Cocoa Amore) describing their use of the centre. Each chartered their business journey to develop multi-channelled, experiential operations that succeed by incorporating the attractive elements of City centres into their business model. These were very personal stories tinged with both success, failure and painful lessons, but ultimately reinforcing the message that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Leicester City centre. The common remark was that these experiences were inspirational.

Obviously, such a multifaceted issue as the Future of City Centres could not be resolved in a night. But it showed the centre was alive and kicking and open for business. And there are the people, places and buildings there to ensure the latest renaissance in the twenties occurs.

Monday, 4 October 2021

The Future of City Centres

This pandemic has bot temporarily (and it is argued to a lesser degree) fundamentally altered many land use patterns in the UK.

City centres will be one to be significantly affected by Covid. But city centres are the heart of our communities. And a failing heart will completely compromise the heath of bot our own bodies and City centres.

What is and what can be done?



Landmark Planning have organised a free seminar as part of the Love Architecture Festival of LSRA (Leicestershire & Rutland Society of Architects) on Wednesday October 20th at 6pm at the Depot, Rutland Street, Leicester to consider this burning question “The Future of our City Centres” of out times. There will be 5 presentations from 5 different perspectives. There will be no pretention at offering complete answers – this is not realistic for such a multi-faceted issue – instead the intention is to offer some thought provoking ideas and opportunities that could be seized to help centres fight back. What it will do is show how some individuals are reacting to maintain City centres as the heart of our communities.

To attend contact us on 0116 2856110 or But be quick it is bound to be a sell out.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Walsall’s very special reason for green belt housing.

Last week I sat through a Walsall Planning Committee meeting. A long discussion was held over the officer’s recommendation for refusal tor the allocation of a site for up to 150 houses on green belt land. The site is not allocated for development, not even in the emerging Black Country Local Plan, currently out to public consultation.



The Black Country Green Belt

The Councillors were struggling to find a reason to approve an outline application. This was especially the case as the site could not be classed as previously developed land. As anti-social activity had been witnessed on the site, the Chair hit upon the idea that crime and fear of crime can be a material planning consideration. Therefore this can be used as the reason for accepting the proposal.


So the proposal was accepted by the Members, seemingly tor this reason only. What the Chair had done was conflate a material planning consideration with “very special circumstances.” Perhaps an easy trap for a non professional to fall into? Or was it because the land was owned by the Council?


Good luck with convincing the Secretary of State, as the application will have to be referred. And if acceptable lets just encourage anti-social behaviour and we can all get green belt land developed for housing?

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Group Think

The big danger of Group Think in all walks of life, including the development industry, exposed.

I was very much reminded of the concept of Group Think by an excellent column of Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times of 15th August. Matthew has written this column for quite a while now and virtually every time gives me a deeper insight into some important aspect of the news. This column looked at some of the SAGE Committee’s early advice, as the Government’s main scientific source of guidance on how to react to the pandemic that has engulfed the country since early 2020.

Essentially, SAGE is a collection of some of our most experienced experts in a range of fields relevant to the pandemic. However, each person is very much the expert in their own field. He argues that what happens is that the others around the table can't really dispute what the expert in one area says, as they don’t have sufficient experience to maintain a credible position, if challenged. What this leads to is each person has to accept a particular expert’s view and then use that as context for their own ‘expert’ position. So a miscalculation in one area leads to further mistakes in the next area and so on. He cites in SAGE’s case consensus agreement on matters such as "mask wearing and border control, which later turned out to be wrong."

This article resonated with me as a planning consultant on major development projects. Each specialist area is usually represented by one expert. There is the planner, the architect, the ecologist, the drainage engineer, the Q.S. and so on. I can feel I am in exactly the same position as a member of SAGE. If the arboriculturist says that a tree must be retained and its root protection area is threatened then I have to accept; equally, with solutions proposed by the highways engineer. My opinion has to reflect that viewpoint, which is very difficult to challenge. Another example is cost – if the Q.S. says a two storey solution is more expensive than a single storey, despite needing double the foundation lengths and roof, there is no way I have the expertise to challenge it. And if this means that this compromises other aspects of the scheme, such as urban design quality or valuable trees tough.

I don’t have easy or indeed any solutions. And clearly retaining two of every expertise, like Noah and his Ark, in a development project is hardly practical. What is needed though is the serious amplifying of the message in the development industry, as well as many others, of encouraging the challenging of every opinion and the supporting of people to be very receptive to it. To change one’s opinion to respond to others to be seen as not a weakness, but a strength. And for teams in today’s incredibly complex world (that is becoming ever more complex) to be genuinely collaborative. No one, however talented, can be an expert in more than 1/2 areas. 

In other words the more you know the more you should realise that you don’t know.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Birds and the Bees: R we getting it rite?

I would imagine nearly everyone in the UK is aware of the continuing degradation of our natural environment and despite the efforts of many individual successes overall the situation is still deteriorating. The Environment Bill with its tortuous progress through Parliament is part of the U.K. response. While one can have individual criticisms of the detail I am confident that the vast majority of people will support the essential thrust of its objectives.
However despite this I consider that there are areas in the planning system in regard to biodiversity that we are getting wrong now. 
Badgers are not threatened as a species. Nevertheless I am all for protecting them. But in the right places. In the middle of the city of Leicester and despite extensive surveys and a mitigation strategy (by a very reputable ecology consultancy) that would protect sufficient existing setts and a separate license procedure to anyway control; a housing application was refused on appeal late last year solely on the grounds of harm to an identified badger population (APP/W2465/W/20/3254985). I consider this an inappropriate barrier to development.

I am currently involved in the restoration of a non-listed building in Rugby town centre that has been void for c. 7 years. It could just be demolished, as it is not within a Conservation Area. However, restored It should achieve 9 good quality residential units. Being derelict, bat surveys were required and were undertaken in 2020. No evidence of previous bat activity was recorded, but there was potential, so summertime surveys, for maternity roosts would also be expected involving at least 4 bat surveyors. 

There is no question that even if there are bats making seasonal use that the building should not be restored. Mitigation measures would be sufficient. In my opinion this should be conditioned as part of any approval. After all, the whole thrust of the NPPF 2019 para. 55 is to impose conditions at the appropriate time.
However, despite the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) encouraging appropriate and proportionate ecological surveys in practice my experience is that all information required is front loaded, so the appellant has greater costs up front where it can’t be set against the development value created. This is front loading in my opinion that is not necessary and can be an impediment to encouraging development and a waste of scarce ecologist time.

What do other people think of the above badger and bat issues and any other comparable ecological issues?

Thursday, 18 March 2021

New Walk, Leicester and its Continuing Improvements.

New Walk has been at the heart of the City for 235 years.  Before that it had been originally laid out as a Roman road, the Via Devana. It has been a fundamental part of the historic development of the current City southwards, providing a pedestrian walkway linking the City Centre to Victoria Park and the southern suburbs. 

Lined by a wide variety of businesses, churches, the Museum and residential properties, it also has one of the best hotels in Leicester, the Belmont. Certainly the best perambulation in Leicester.

The Walk is a community in its own right. A unique mixed use quarter of the City where nearly all the major building styles of that 235 year history are compressed together. The mix works as they are tied together by the Walk; the regular frontage line of the buildings; the relatively consistent scale; and, of course, the deciduous trees, which set the scale and particularly when in leaf dominate the vista.  And it is also that eclectic mix of buildings and styles, along with its 3/4 mile length, including 4 public spaces, (The Oval, De Montfort & Museum Squares and New Walk Place) that makes it unique in the country as well; so adding to the distinctive character of Leicester."

Winter 2020 Museum Square










Now, in a continuing series of improvements trialled in the New Walk Conservation Area Management Plan and published by Leicester City Council in September 2020 work, supported by the Friends of New Walk, is already well under way in Museum and De Montfort Squares, integral parts of the Walk.

For those who are interested you can find out so much more from the Friends of New Walk charity web site:"

The charity lobby to maintain and improve the Walk, as well as raise monies for some projects, such as public art of which the latest is the Writers Block paving in New Walk Place.

Peter Wilkinson

Chairman Friends of New Walk and MD Landmark Planning

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Leicester Business Voice Post

The latest Your Voice feature, giving LBV (Leicester Business Voice) members a platform for their views on the current business landscape in Leicester.








Peter Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Landmark Planning Ltd. He has been a practicing planner for 40 years, having worked in both the public and private sectors in a wide variety of capacities. Locally and worthy of note, he was City Centre Manager for Leicester City Council from 1994 to 1999. Since that time, he has run Landmark Planning Ltd from its base in the city.

How would you describe what your business does?

Landmark Planning undertakes all work in relation to the town planning process, from planning applications to appeals. This ranges from managing multi-million residential and commercial development schemes, to small certificates of lawful use or enforcement cases, for both public and private clients. Two of the largest current schemes relate to the £60m new centre for Nottingham College, and a 7 hectare commercial scheme for Brackley Property Developments at Broughton Astley.

A much broader description is available at where a wider range of recent projects is described.

What are the biggest opportunities for your business?

The biggest opportunities for the business in the future, as we emerge (hopefully from the Covid crisis!) relate firstly, to major housing developments to satisfy the government’s 300,000 a year target; and secondly, the repurposing of property assets as a consequence of all the economic changes resulting from Covid.

What are the biggest challenges for your business?

  1. Securing sufficient work when most companies and individuals will be short of capital for new projects, as a consequence of surviving the economic downturn.
  2. Planning is frequently about liaising with a wide range of partners to prepare schemes and then promoting them to other stakeholders, such as public or public bodies. Covid restrictions and remote working make this so much harder to secure effective engagement.

What would you identify as the key strengths of Leicester?

  1. The city is centrally located within the country.
  2. Leicester is blessed with a vast range of small businesses and communities with an outstanding entrepreneurial spirit.

What are the top three ways in which Leicester can develop to support the business community?

  1. Substantially improve transport links, both within and adjacent the city, as well as lobbying to improve extra-region communications both North-South, but also East-West.
  2. Continue to invest heavily in improving the physical environment of the city, particularly the centre and the Waterside.
  3. Market and promote the city: particularly to attract new investment in 21st century sectors, that have substantive prospects to create wealth and employment going forward.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

 Virtual Hearings: The Solution?


This week I took part in my first virtual Planning Hearing for a relatively simple case, but with over 20 objectors present most of whom were Councillors and generally wanting to speak. As a consequence, with a site visit, the Hearing lasted two full days.


What was different:


1.     Obviously the use of Zoom technology. This largely worked with only occasional droppings of the signal with some resultant delays. What it did mean though was that everything took longer. And it was much more tiring for the principal participants, as concentrating on a screen in this case for seven hours a day is going to fully test the fittest. 


2.     This must have been particularly the case for the Inspector, as the Planning Inspectorate ran the technology, so any glitches he had to manage. There was case officer support (essential in controlling the access lobby), but overall the Inspector had to manage that aspect. I believe there are suggestions to do away with this technical support. This really does seem like a bridge too far.


3.     There was a much greater equality of the actors. All have the same screen presence, so third parties, especially by being in much greater numbers could more easily dominate the debate. This meant that there could be much greater divergence in discussion from the actual differences between the two main parties, as defined in the Statement of Common Ground.


4.     The virtual approach certainly facilitates much greater public involvement, because of this equality. None Rule 6 parties seem to be able to ask direct questions and not to have to commit to travel and therefore it is less of a burden for them. By the same token though, it was easier for the Inspector to control this participation in a form conducive to the holding of what should be formal events.


5.     It may have just been the preference of this Inspector, but a formal Opening and Closing by each sides planning witness was requested on the day. This increased the need for these two witnesses to act as advocates, as well as expert witnesses. I wasn’t really prepared for that, but on reflection I think this is good thing.   Especially in virtual hearings it helps to try and focus attention on the key issues. Personally, I also found it a good discipline to enhance what one should be doing: namely addressing the overall planning balance.


Signpost to the Planning Inspectorate. 



1.     Preparation as always is key. You need to be even more confident of your whole case and the planning law and policy behind it. And your proofs need to be as short as possible. The Statement of Common Ground is likely to be even more important, so the Hearing can focus on the disputed issues.


2.     In the current Covid climate they are a necessary substitute to keep the planning system moving.


3.     One needs to remember that you are being viewed up close and personal by all the other participants, so good personal habits, as well as not looking as though one is just reading out evidence and really are in command of your case is important.


4.     The event worked better than I thought. There has to be even more emphasis on quality management and succinctness by all the parties. Virtual is definitely more tiring than actual events, so one needs to be even more disciplined to get the key messages over. It also means even greater reliance on experienced Inspectors to control the disparate participants.


5.     I can see the temptation of an under resourced and target failing Inspectorate to continue to hold virtual events. And there is certainly scope for them going forward as a viable alternative to real events. My appeal was not design based, with lots of plans and visuals, which I think will be much harder to properly consider in a virtual hearing as effective screen sharing is tricky. 


6.     Either way my case has taken 14 months from appeal submission to just the Hearing. Hopefully we will get a decision soon!