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Delivering planning in a determined local authority

27 October 2011

The fifth in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.

Stewart Murray, Chief Planning and Regeneration Officer, London Borough of Redbridge.

Martin -StewartStewart, until recently Director of Planning, Housing and Regeneration at the London Borough of Barnet, and previous to that the Greater London Authority, has been involved in some of the largest development and regeneration schemes in the Capital for 20 years, including the Olympics/Thames Gateway, Kings Cross, Wembley, London Bridge, Brent Cross and Cricklewood. Interestingly, he was also the Councils officer lead on Tax Increment Finance and the Barnet Finance Plan (Barnet Bond).

Whilst at Barnet, councillors also sought to introduce fee scales that would provide an enhanced application service for higher payments, which at the time upset some members of the RTPI and others opposing the approach by the then leader who subsequently became an MP in the last election. Stewart departed Barnet earlier this summer and shortly afterwards the Council introduced substantial and still controversial outsourcing proposals including for much of planning. He has since become Chief Planning and Regeneration Officer for the London Borough of Redbridge, current London leaders in introducing CIL. I asked him to be interviewed because he has managed to sustain a good planning service in what from the outside seems to be a very determined even single purposed in the political sense local authority, and he might be able to offer some experience of how to handle this? He is also another alumnus from London SouthBank!

Stewart, how have you ended up where you are?

As a Londoner, I started with vacation work in the GLC whilst studying at Southbank Poly and that led to a job in the City Corporation with a first scheme in Broadgate! I have had a varied career including a brief period in the 80s in a firm of City Chartered Surveyors, and much to my personal benefit, I was part of a foreign exchange scheme in the 1980s between the City of London and City of Melbourne, spending some time there and experiencing and understanding spatial planning in a foreign environment. As I progressed up the Local Authority ladder between the London Boroughs of Islington and Merton, I had to deal with a variety of political groups and gained a reputation for resolving difficult and complex schemes. I moved to Barnet to lead on major retail and regeneration opportunities, (particularly including extensions to the Brent Cross shopping centre), then worked under the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in the GLA on the first London Plan, and worked closely with the Boroughs on major strategic Opportunity Areas and as an active member of the Borough Partnerships Team. I then moved back to Barnet at the helm, invited back as Head of Planning to address poor development control performance and a delayed UDP process. But quickly I added responsibilities for regeneration and the regulatory services of building control and planning applications. We introduced a new Spatial Vision and Strategy alongside the more traditional land use UDP in 2004 called the Three Strands Approach: Protect, Enhance, Grow. Under a new administration elected 2002 the Council faced with the need for clarity over growth and major housing regeneration plans inherited from the previous administration (knocking down some 3,500 council homes and replacing them with 8,000 new mixed tenure homes). I therefore devised a balanced suburban protection and growth approach and worked on the new system to address major differences in the Borough contrasting Green Belt protection with seriously deprived areas requiring growth to deliver regeneration outcomes.

To have made such career progress did you undertake any management training post chartered membership?

Ive always been interested in management and leadership and initially started with an NVQ in management when I was at London Borough of Islington and at Barnet; the CEO personally sponsored me on a Leaders UK group in 2005. Subsequently I took a MBA at University of Birmingham who were working in partnership with the National School of Government at Ashridge College on leadership development. These were important and supportive adjuncts to my planning training, positioning planning more effectively in a delivery environment. I enjoy bringing about cultural change.

How would you summarise the skills you have developed to deliver planning outcomes in a pressured political situation?

Politicians of all parties are attracted by results, especially the co-ordination and linking of public policies and services in a spatial manner not least when it results in cost efficiencies.

Understanding Strategic, the wider context and positioning your council beneficially are hugely important. Certainly having a London (Regional) Plan is helpful, not withstanding its challenges locally, and then through liaison with regeneration and housing agencies, translating that strategic approach to a project delivered on the ground is an essential part of the planning process. Its not clear if the proposed statutory duty to co-operate will have enough legal (and political) status outside the Capital to deliver what the London Plan has done.

You must as a planner have commercial skills and understanding of the development industry. Understanding and realising public investment, especially in community infrastructure and transport, is the key to creating a secure investment environment that will secure the delivery of sustainable development. In my new department at Redbridge we have to work with services, (albeit recently reduced like all local planning authorities,) revenue and capital budgets in the £millions and are growing in influence strategically and corporately, such as addressing population growth, housing and schools planning. These budgets need to lever in public and private investment if they are to achieve long term outcomes and regeneration. The budgets go up substantially once aligned with housing development and council housing finance (HRA). As a team, we work across departments, like Housing and Childrens Services although some do not always think strategically or immediately and see the financial customer service benefits of a spatial approach so its our job to translate spatial planning benefits to colleagues and partners. Our approach to CIL has required much negotiation but with clear benefits for service departments, including finance, and we have secured agreement not least because of our understanding of budget management. We have also introduced specialist sector planners education, social services, health who have gained the confidence of their departments eventually producing parallel investment and infrastructure delivery plans.

I suppose the greatest skills a planner must have to negotiate challenging political environments are ones of persuasion, co-operation and partnership. As an example, we have produced a Health SPD linking health provision with housing and infrastructure especially adult social care, including where this is for an outsourced residential care facility i.e. some 1,000 beds in the third sector. Outsourcing may be a cost effective solution, reducing or avoiding public funding but it needs to be alongside an improvement and investment plan delivered through the planning process, demonstrating value to service departments. Provided management retains control of strategic decisions and quality, and there is scope for addressing customer satisfaction, it can work in some instances. Interestingly, in my experience and with initial risk assessment being involved in these processes it seems easier to outsource some regulatory services if that is the right choice for the council, but not all services, leaving more complex schemes involving imaginative and in some cases entrepreneurial public intervention to public sector officers, such as in strategic planning and regeneration. There are occasionally ideological issues about for example, partnerships that do not require fixed term public investment but these challenges are there to be resolved and partnership requires able and effective public sector partners if it is to work.

What do you look for in a 21st Century planner?

Someone who is sharp on environmental issues and planning policy; a commercial and opportunistic approach; driven, motivated by spatial and customer outcomes.

Local Authorities need to nurture their staff to get more out of what theyve got and reverse the trend of movement into consultancy, although the recession has partly done that. We need to expand planners areas of influence and extend skills to deliver spatial planning outcomes.

I see planning as a positive force well capable of responding to challenges imposed by the market, public sector cuts and the need for efficiencies, but most importantly demonstrating the application of planning to delivery, in fact demonstrating that good planning is critical to the successful delivery of homes, jobs and infrastructure. It is often a political decision to appoint a planner as a management leader. Such leaders must not be frightened by change, in fact, they should embrace it. There are always opportunities to be grasped especially when you are young, and negatives can be turned into positives. Even downsizing can be used to generate new solutions. In my new authority I have to get more out of less and we are doing some exciting innovative things.

Nobody is just a planner. Dont be constrained by traditional notions of planning practice. Think beyond your current area of responsibility and go do it.

Planners are trained to deliver solutions to development and community problems. We need to sell the planning service and offer up ideas and solutions that are irresistible to politicians of whatever party, whether radical or not. Planners have to demonstrate that they are nimble in adding value, making money (environmental as well as economic investment) and making sure it is distributed and spent wisely, i.e. CIL leadership. Currently, Redbridge, a leading council in CIL delivery, is approaching CIL alongside New Homes Bonus receipts and through the introduction of council assets in an imaginative and cohesive way that is commercially aware and attractive but delivers results for politicians and communities. This increases our credence within the Council, particularly the all important Finance Officers!

Are you facing a problem with the transition from the 2004 system to the emerging one?

We are reviewing our Core Strategy adopted in 2008 and are producing AAPs in critical areas such as along the CrossRail corridor and next to Stratford where the Olympics and the new vast Westfield Shopping centre is opening. We are looking to enhance the attraction of Ilford for Inward Investment and using technology and the web to market ourselves. We are developing a de-risking tool for developers which allow schemes on allocated sites to emerge quickly and with a high degree of certainty from the Council. We approach pre application discussions in the same manner and offer a Design Quantum Framework. We use the web to provide a co-ordinated service for investment.

In summary, planners need to improve their profile with councillors and the Coalition Government by much more flag waving! My experience involves different councils varying from traditional development control approaches to planning [committees with many members from the backbenches] to more radical ones with a Cabinet system that increasingly work alongside the private sector and other strategic delivery partners to achieve spatial outcomes. Some councils have a mix of both. We need to adapt our approaches accordingly and promote success through planning.

Stewart is clearly my sort of planner who sees any problem as an opportunity to deliver a planning solution. Also, political risk can be turned into planning advantage, however challenging. Is he not a typical planner or is he one of a new breed of planners? The latter I think although many, as demonstrated by these interviews, have moved beyond traditional planning for many years. We need to promote what planners like Stewart achieve in a much more effective manner both to increase influence and to attract and retain the best planners, especially in local authorities.

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, October 2011