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Lessons from the private sector

28 February 2012

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

Sue Bridge, Head of Planning, Northampton Borough Council

Sue -Bridge

When I first came across Sue, she ran planning and land services for Bellway Homes. As someone who had managed to pass through the glass ceiling of the notoriously male world of house building, she offered clarity of thought and a reputation for quiet diplomacy in negotiating schemes with planning authorities. I learnt of her move back to the public sector from a young planner in her Northampton Borough Council department who, when we were putting the world to rights at a Planning Convention, explained; Weve got this amazing new Head of Planning; shes transformed the department in 4 months! I met Sue again and persuaded her to join the RTPI Policy and Practice Committee to whose work she has made a significant contribution. In the interview, I was particularly keen to see if life in the private sector offered any lessons for management in the public sector.

We met in her council offices in the centre of a vibrant Northampton Town Centre and I asked her about her roots;

Im a Geordie lass and proud of it. I was lucky enough to be selected to do a BSc degree in Urban Land Economics at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). As part of the course I was advised that if I wanted to be a Chartered Surveyor, 'get to know thine enemy' and go look at the planners! I was offered a placement in the Council planning department and from there I never looked back. I had found what I wanted to do in life; I knew from the first day I wanted to be a planner.

I did a post graduate planning course at Sunderland Poly, then after maternity leave moved into Newcastle City Council, working in local government for 20 years, before I became Regional Planning Manager at Bellway in 1996 in the Midlands, focussing on strategic land in the upturn in the economy after 6 years of recession.

Id heard that you have introduced a more performance management style. Are there any particular lessons or skills from the private sector that are transferable to management in the public sector?

As a planner, I believe it is absolutely essential that you received grounding in planning in a local authority, wherever your planning career eventually takes you. You will never truly understand the planning process if you havent dealt with a planning application and either had to deal with an objector or needed to negotiate a better solution that will get planning consent.

In local planning you learn about the need to provide a firm evidence base and this becomes even more essential in the private sector.

The move from public to private was initially a huge shock; you suddenly discover a whole new dimension of planning you didnt know existed. You have to develop robust negotiating skills to deal with local authority planners - in fact at times it can become slightly adversarial. Your powers of persuasion are honed especially where you are proposing something the local authority initially doesnt want. Plans are sometimes not easy to make work commercially so you have to take the local authority with you and you get nowhere by banging the table. It takes some developers and their consultants a long time to accept that negotiation is an art.

There is also the need to learn how to manage consultants to get the best out of them at a sensible cost - I have no qualms about going through invoices in careful detail to make sure costs are properly incurred and recorded. As far as the private sector culture is concerned, negotiation is the key skill, you have to know when and where to draw a line in the sand you cant ignore a Sec 106 requirement and amendments must be properly presented with a clear case made.

In the private sector, your negotiating skills can make the difference between profit and loss. You are personally responsible for decisions and above all you have to manage risk. It is essential to prepare and plan for risk mitigation, to continually appraise the line of action you are pursuing. You are forever horizon scanning thinking strategically as well as tactically. Crafting a legal agreement that will have an impact on the development of land and profitability for, say, 15 years is a big responsibility. Commercial judgement is important, strategic positioning, understanding all the consequences of a master plan not least because site promotion costs are so high. Profits, contrary to perceptions may not be substantial on these strategic schemes and may not be realised until quite late in a scheme. Your discussion with a planning officer on a Friday afternoon on a series of amendments can be the difference between profit and loss and this is a big level of responsibility rarely experienced in local authorities. Learning to take these responsibilities was a good preparation for a move back to the public sector. I have tried to take this business culture into public sector management, Im running a public service business here where the word we is really important.

And are these skills transferable and relevant for the public sector Sue?

Too many people in the public sector are heads down, and process orientated. They operate in intellectual isolation. The consequences can lead to a democratic deficit, political shortfall and a lost opportunity to create a better place, to shape future communities in a positive way. The Local Plan is the council and communitys Business Plan; Development Management is the delivery of that Business Plan.

Plymouth is promoting One Plan which picks up and aligns all council strategy. I agree entirely with that. The new Localism Act and NPPF will require a clear definition of sustainable development in the Local Plan. The private sector will have to engage the community early rather than act adversarially at an EIP. To be successful, local planners should be able to lead the private sector through the new processes. In Northampton some developers have embraced the new landscape enthusiastically, others not. But it is important that in order to achieve the delivery of the LDF we all engage positively with communities. CIL with an Infrastructure Delivery Plan will require a commitment to action by the Council as well as be a cost on development.

Transferable skills Sue!

The competitive environment in Bellway was a healthy training ground, having to manage some lovely but sometimes very difficult people. Shorter term commercial issues sometimes undermined my planning preferences so I had to develop multi disciplinary management skills to deliver results. I learned a lot of people management skills that are really helpful to me now in my large department. I didnt experience a glass ceiling. In my experience planning is a profession where now gender isnt an issue. In this council there are more women than men on our management board.

Probably the most important transferable skills are listening and knowing when to ask the right questions. This helps managing across and above as well as below and is essential in overcoming barriers. Also, in house building, 90% of planning work is problem solving, looking at something from all sides. Asking the right question to allow others to answer and help turn a situation around to find a solution is a key transferable skill. You also need to take risks and be prepared for risks, and mitigating risks is something they do very well here. The private sector does this instinctively; in fact they are risk averse.

Local authorities are not working in a similar commercial environment but planners need to recognise the commercial consequences of proposals they plan for. Development management is never black and white; consider different inputs, find a compromise on difficult issues especially were viability is concerned.

What made you move back to the public sector?

I gained much valuable and interesting experience in the private sector but the real decision takers are in local government. As a planner, there is always a public service ethos and the opportunity in Northampton with major growth still planned and significant challenges to the delivery of infrastructure and to the environment was an attractive choice. Although the current economic climate means that the timescale will be different, it is important not to ruin what we have here.

I suppose I thought I could offer something different to the public sector in the latter part of my career.

Any bees in your bonnet?

It is really important that this government allows planning fees to be set locally.  Weve participated in the PAS/CIPFA 200 authority benchmarking club. Weve got right on top of the chargeable and non chargeable costs of different types of application and of all the consultees through the use of timesheets. We know what each stage costs as a proper basis for charges. The process has opened planners eyes and made the negotiation of performance agreements much easier and more robust. The club has also had a major impact on how we manage the pre application process. We are learning how to run the business of planning here.

I always ask interviewees what they look for in a planner Sue?

I need planners that are bright as a personality, engaging, and flexible (absolutely huge importance) and of course knowledgeable in planning. They must be able to adapt to change especially over the next 3 years where to secure delivery, they will have to demonstrate the values of planning to the council, developers and the local community including in dealing with objections. People matter and they have to have confidence in the planning system.

A fascinating story of gamekeeper turned poacher turned gamekeeper!

I came away impressed again with the clarity of thought and communication from Sue and how this focus and a disciplined approach to planning coupled with an easy charm will generate confidence in the local development community as well as amongst her staff, colleagues, councillors and communities. From a career point of view, especially in these troubled times, her career should give confidence to younger planners that you can move between the public and private sectors gaining relevant experience and developing skills that apply to good planning wherever you end up.

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, February 2012