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: https://www.friendsofnewwalk.com."

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 www.landmarkplanning.co.uk 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. 

 

Lessons

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!