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Planning – challenges being faced

January 31, 2022

In current and future development strategy meetings with our clients and their architects, we are continually hearing that the bottlenecks in obtaining planning approval for these schemes are pushing timelines further and further back. We sat down with James Griffin, founding partner of Zesta Planning, to discuss the issues.

In current and future development strategy meetings with our clients and their architects, we are continually hearing that the bottlenecks in obtaining planning approval for these schemes are pushing timelines further and further back.

We sat down with James Griffin, founding partner of Zesta Planning, Cheltenham to discuss the issues and challenges facing developers and architects and the potential solutions to accelerating approvals.

Paul Skuse (PS)
James, before we get into the nitty-gritty of this, sometimes contentious subject, it would be great to know a little about Zesta Planning.

James Griffin (JG)
So in summary, Zesta is a dynamic planning consultancy looking to do something innovative within the market – we’re friendly, approachable and have a wide range of experience. We operate predominately throughout the West, West Midlands and South West, but also nationally when needed – we pick up a whole range of projects including commercial and housing related projects, but also bespoke rural schemes, including ‘grand design’ style new homes and conversion proposals. We work very closely with architects but also with larger development companies. Unlike a larger corporate company, all our planners at Zesta are very accessible and thrive on devoting our time to clients’ needs.

(PS)
So, it sounds like you mentioned innovative at the top there, is that a key differentiator? Is it relationship based, it’s bringing a bit of freshness to what is a fairly traditional style of working with people?

(JG)
Absolutely, we like to focus on the personable side to really identify what client’s needs are and that helps us stand to out from the crowd. We have a very competent team that can work directly with clients, tailoring our approach to whatever the project requires. As you suggest, I think the innovative approach is that we are personable, yet able to combine that with clear, concise advice using the vast experience we have. We’re a medium sized company, yet can bring in the vast knowledge we have in the company to problem solve and devise robust planning strategies, focused on gaining the right result.

(PS)
You mentioned problem solving. Are there any key challenges and problems you are seeing out there in the marketplace at the moment?

(JG)
Without doubt one of the main challenges presently is engaging with local planning authorities. With reduced council budgets, challenging staffing levels, high staff turnover and timescales often being missed, a lot of our time is focused on how best to move applications forward within the system that is, to be honest, feeling heavy strain and failing at the moment. We are quite often pulled into projects to identify how best to get applications moving, so the knowledge that our team has – from both private and public sector backgrounds, really helps tackle the unique circumstances any such application is facing.

(PS)
Do you foresee that maybe there is a future where the council are still in charge of the planning from their point of view but the private sector, you, as planning consultants, are able to be given more and more responsibility to help take those bottle necks out the equation a little?

(JG)
We are already starting to see that Councils are utilising contract planners. These are often ‘private planners’ who are contracted to work for the Council, so in-part it is already starting to happen. Such appointments can often be short-term however, so this can often result in a lack of consistency and high turnover. You could have a very competent planner on particular case yet that planner can easily move on. But that is why are planning strategy right from day one as it has to be tailored to the circumstances surrounding that particular local authority. We know there are local planning authorities out there that are better resourced than others and our planning strategy has to reflect that situation, to be honest. A more comprehensive privatisation approach to planning department would be very challenging given the likely adverse public perception and preserved integrity of decision making.

(PS)
Highly tailored to each distract council and their staff levels, so historically you know how they work, and they are all fairly different.

(JG)
Absolutely. Right from day one, we need to understand the make-up of that local authority both at officer and political level, and then tailor our approach to that circumstance. There is no doubt that utilising contract planners is certainly helping to get things moving but there is still that consistency challenge during the often lengthy decision making process. Regrettably, this does affect good place making.  Our broad experience and backgrounds at Zesta can help. We always seek to understand the intricate processes of each Council we deal with and their internal structures /context.

(PS)
Their own politics.

(JG)
Their own politics, exactly. Being a technically competent planner is one thing, yet to be a good place maker, you really need to understand the local decision making environment and key players involved throughout.

(PS)
Are there any steps being taken by the local councils to fast-track new planners in at their end or is their thinking maybe that they can push back and lean more on yourselves, as planning consultants to take a lot of the heavy lifting away from them.

(JG)
Generally speaking, I think there is a disconnect between the public and private sector in this country, which is very sad. Of course, it varies between councils but there can be a perceived lack of respect between both sides which there doesn’t need to be. Agent and developer forums can help re-addressed that but there generally needs to be an acceptance between both parties that we need to work together to deliver to nuts and bolts of what makes a place function – homes, school, parks etc.  It is often welcoming when dealing with a council officer that understands that and you can work together to achieve good quality development in a timely fashion. That all relies on trust building and mutual respect.  It happens in other countries, where there is often a closer working relationship between both sectors, in places like New Zealand and Australia. They of course have differing systems/environments  to ours, but it can happen and I do think there does need to be more outreach.

(PS)
So as a wrap up of this really, is that is part of your remit, at Zesta these days, it is not just the planning consultancy side of things, the planning strategy and the process, methodology, it is actually having to understand and take a lead role from a consultancy point of view in helping the local authorities to get your planning over the line as quickly as possible?

(JG)
Yes.

(PS)
So, you are almost hand holding in a certain way, managing the project?

(JG)
Yes, absolutely in most instances.

(PS)
And then approaching the entire process from a holistic point of view?

(JG)
Absolutely, that is always our role as lead planning consultant on any project. It is our responsibility to be custodian of the project and obtain the right result for our client team.   This can involve intricate navigation throughout the planning process and direct engagement with officers, and their consultees. We’ve been asked to support that process in numerous ways from displaying site notices, to helping to draft sections of reports – all to help ease pressures currently being experienced and get applications moving.  Relationship building is at its heart and we do our utmost to get the Council to a point where they can make a decision, preferably favourably!

(PS)
James, thank you for your insights into the challenges that you, developers and architects are facing right now as well as the local authorities, and the steps that can be taken to help push planning through the bottle necks as quickly as possible.

To find out more about James and Zesta Planning, visit Zesta Planning.

James Griffin MA MRTPI
Zesta Planning Director

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