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Planning lessons from the London 2012 Olympics

26 June 2012

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

Vivienne Ramsey - Director of Planning Decisions, Olympic Delivery Authority.

Viv RamseyOnly a few weeks to go and the Olympic site and legacy are already being heralded as an international example of planning best practice. Who better to speak to than Viv Ramsey, Director of Planning Decisions at the ODA who has managed the planning decision process from the beginning. She was the 2009 winner of the RTPI Todays Leader competition in London, just beating her colleague Niall McNevin on the application side, and best public sector planner at the 2005 RTPI London Awards.

I met Viv in her modest offices just outside Stratford Station surrounded by a huge pile of Olympic Legacy documents complying with numerous conditions and agreements associated with this enormous scheme; she also dealt with the huge Westfield Shopping Centre alongside the Station.

Having met her on a number of occasions, the quiet and charming exterior is also matched by a steely determination that must have been necessary to manage the multiplicity of London Boroughs and other stakeholders to deliver consents in a co-ordinated and integrated form and allow the build process to be completed ahead of time.

Where did it all start Viv?

"A Geography degree at Hull then a job dealing with adverts in Birmingham Planning Department - very boring. Can I do some more please how about planning applications for house extensions in Sutton Coldfield? Perhaps this planning stuff is not for me; too boring.

My then fiancée took a job in Zambia where they were still operating their equivalent of the 1947 Planning Act and I went with him. I secured a job as Planning Assistant in the regional planning office for the northern half of the country initially looking at District Plans for scattered small towns as well as development control.  The Head of the Department spent most of his time getting further qualifications in England and as the only woman apart from the typist, much of my time was spent explaining the customs and practice of white Europeans to other Planning Assistants keen to ask questions about stuff they had always wanted to know but were afraid to ask! There were of course many similarities between the tribal customs of Africa and the history and customs of current day England with its various regional and local characteristics and then in the 70s the class system. It was an enjoyable period of my career moving town plans on from 1 mile circumference from The District Commissioners Offices to something which at least addressed density and town expansion.

I returned to London in 1978 with a renewed appetite to take on planning as a career and wrote to Local Authorities for jobs working initially in D.C. in Newham between 1979 and 83, getting a post grad degree at PCL, and then moved into the Newham Docklands Planning Team working first against and then in partnership with the LDDC. I helped prepare the Royal Docks and Beckton Local Plans which had to go to Inquiry because the LDDC objected to every policy! I met my current partner while working together on evidence for the Inquiry. An opportunity arose to become the senior planner in charge of development control at Newham and after external candidates dropped out I was the only internal women candidate. When I was appointed all the unsuccessful blokes had the vapours!"

You managed to break through the glass ceiling then but clearly there were still some gender issues Viv?

"Yes, but with a backlog of 500 applications and despite initial resistance from the blokes, I collected performance data from the admin team and turned the situation round with a series of 1 to 1 meetings; an early taste of managing on the back of proper information. I also had to introduce a culture of responding to applicant and neighbour enquiries rather than just approach planning on the basis that the professional planner knows best. Following a further restructuring I added Building Control, Land Charges, Enforcement and Licensing to my responsibilities and work we did bringing Building Control, DC and Enforcement together provided useful experience when I came to the ODA and wanted to encourage joined up regulatory procedures amongst the Host Boroughs. I dealt with major sites through a specific team and over 3 years with the help of the Planning Delivery Grant and parallel control of my budget, we ended up with an efficient approach, regularly hitting all the Performance Indicators. When London decided to make the Olympic Bid the 5 Boroughs involved set up a joint team led by Janet Thomas to process the applications and needed to get an Outline Planning Permission for the Olympic Park. The mixture of enabling works, master plans and planning applications required detailed planning and project management. The 4 Borough Planning Committees met in public on the same day at City Hall and decided the applications at the same time. A huge achievement. When the Bid was won and the ODA was set up, my experience of resource planning, budgeting and management at Newham together with my success in running the Newham Major Projects Team provided essential credentials for the ODA job and I was eventually appointed as Head of Development Control. Subsequently I became Director of Planning for the Planning Decisions Team. I was and remain a member of the ODA Executive Management Board reporting directly to the CEO. These were essential conditions for the effective management of the planning process for the Olympics."

If only other public bodies adopted the same approach giving planning its proper status, one suspects that much of the current criticism directed at the profession would disappear?

"I couldnt agree more. Im not sure if the Head of Planning in many of the London Boroughs is on the top Officer Management Team, much to their loss, although there is now a planner as Corporate Director in Newham."

Returning to the Olympics, your Regulatory Team were matched with a Development and Promotion Team led by Niall McNevin. There must have been some disagreements?

"We devised an Internal Protocol to resolve disputes between the promoter and regulator with the Director of Finance as promoter and CEO as regulator but Niall and I got on pretty well; two planning professionals committed to a common cause."

More lessons there for good public sector practice especially where public assets are concerned?

"Absolutely."

What about transferable skills and practice Viv? The Olympics are a pretty special case where resources had to be committed in the National Interest?

"The Team initially consisted of a small core of myself as Head, Janet Thomas to act as a free standing manager of Borough relationships, a Planner to scrutinise Borough Policy, emerging LDFs and The London Plan and borough and stakeholder management and a small team of planners assigned to us from the Boroughs using SLAs to cover Olympics and Stratford City work. Communities were engaged jointly by my team and Niall's and individual applications programmed separately but jointly sharing many components such as infrastructure and contributions to legacy. We have a top admin team with cradle to grave process software producing essential management information. Eventually, a need for separately appointed planners as well as seconded ones became essential because of the amount of work and so the team expanded to include ODA Planners."

Lessons learned?

"A clear distribution of responsibilities was essential, within my team and within the partners. This could perhaps be applied to adjoining local authorities discharging the new strategic duty to co-operate. This might work with SLAs between local authorities operating in joint planning teams.

An ability to replace or return underperforming team members was important. Some had to be sent back to the Boroughs.

Formal guidance to the promoters with a clear legal and regulatory framework made a significant contribution to efficient project management. We also used the dispute resolution protocol to great effect speedy decisions resulted.

Fortnightly joint progress meetings were diarised to address the overall programme and individual applications. Related to these was a constructive but evidence based approach to risk assessment and associated issues. Both ODA teams contributed to the creation and management of a Risk Register identifying risk, responsibility and action to overcome risk. This was particularly appropriate for addressing objections that could not be overcome.

Management and project management skills honed in Newham became increasingly important people, performance management and information, an ability to write policy and contribute to Corporate Strategy, Vision and most recently plan for Legacy.

Sensitivity to risk was required both in the planning function but also in corporate issues."

It would be helpful to readers to understand a little more about the ethos of your approach, how you selected team members and decided and managed resources Viv?

"At the beginning we worked with ODA programme managers to integrate planning into the whole Olympics procurement and development process. I had learnt the principles of this in management training in Newham. This had to include all stages of planning decisions from pre-application to outline, reserved matters, detail approval and legal agreements, including those dealing with legacy and residual matters to set standard times within the programme. We introduced gateways into the programme management process to ensure that relevant planning consents had been obtained before proceeding to the next stage of construction; and trackers for planning consents, conditions and Section 106 obligations to ensure compliance. We introduced a specific project management system to ensure good performance from consultees. This worked really well for managing the planning of major schemes.

The promoter initiated a series of technical forums to operate at the pre-application stage for all the major Reserved Matters for the Venues and Park, which we attended. Planners were identified with specific consultee linkage responsibilities and consultees and local interest groups were involved throughout although there were very few community members. There were however, many stakeholder and statutory consultees who attended. At the Forum, where issues emerged, breakout sessions addressed them, reported back and the promoter responded through amendment or by providing additional information in the application. When applications arrived there were no surprises for the consultees. I met with Niall every week to fix issues as they arose.

Planning on this scheme is about enabling and shaping something of benefit to the wider community; both the principle and detail are intended to enhance an area but working with the developer."

Your job is still not finished; the planning process is influential way beyond the Olympic event itself?

"After the experience of other Olympics, one of the motives of the successful bid was to make sure there were long lasting benefits, so legacy has featured in all the planning processes. Current Post Games Legacy work involves replacing tarmac with landscaping, introducing bridges, removing temporary tents and many of the buildings have temporary or de-mountable elements. The application for the redevelopment of the released development sites will be dealt with by July for just under 7,000 residential units, schools, community facilities, employment space etc. We also expect to receive an application to transform the Stadium for post Games uses and are starting to talk about the remaining plots on the Stratford City site which have outline planning permission for lots of office floorspace and more residential units. The new London Legacy Development Corporation has my planning team moving over in October when it becomes a Local Planning Authority. The DC has new plan making responsibilities as well as dealing with planning applications and the plan is to have an approved LDF by April 2014 together with CIL and of course it will comply with the London Plan."

So you are going on holiday in 2015 Viv?

"No seriously, its good fun and I have a great team. But I miss Janet who has now retired. She was my confidant.

We have thought about lessons learned and the ODA has created a special website funded by our sponsors DCMS. We are arranging a series of events with professional bodies around a learning legacy. For Planning subjects currently include a Protocol and Framework for dealing with remediation conditions on contaminated sites we had to deal with dozens of different sites on the Olympic Park - and this is supported by a Remediation Forum attended by the Environment Agency, Environmental Health and consultants. We hope this will help other LPAs dealing with complicated contaminated sites. A Development Management report will shortly be completed and added to the website.

During construction, a hot line was provided to address local resident concerns and liaison sessions held on an area basis to keep locals informed. An Olympic Park Traffic and Environment Strategy are in place in liaison with the Boroughs and TFL. A Construction Traffic Management Plan has worked well.

New communities will of course be created including in Stratford City (currently the Athletes Village). A Community Development Trust has been created with a funded Community Development Officer to help manage the transition from Games to community and develop the activities in the new community centre."

Did you get any free tickets Viv?

"Sadly not although I have got tickets through the draws for table tennis and athletics and some for the Paralympics. I also have to supervise enforcement of conditions during both 2 week Games periods."

And now a variation on my usual question of all interviewees; what have you looked for and found in an Olympic Planner Viv?

"Someone who is bright, cheerful and enjoys working in a team, getting on well with all sorts; able to make an individual contribution to a wider project, operating in a non hierarchical environment. An inquisitive and a positive enabler thinking about development outside the regulatory environment. If the principle is OK then working hard with the applicant to help them improve and enable good development. If it's not permissible then tell the applicant and refuse it quickly for clear reasons.

It is essential to form a coherent proposal at the pre-application stage. Planners should not be frightened to seek expert advice and talk through proposals with others before going back to the applicant. Always reflect a little then check the regs and policy yourself."

You must be very proud of what you and your team have achieved.

"The Olympic and Stratford City Legacy will last way beyond the events themselves, including over 8,000 new jobs at Westfield of which 2,000 were filled by people from Newham; unlocking rail land at Stratford for the Stratford City Development, the Olympic Village which will provide 2818 new homes, a school, a health centre, a community centre and new parks after the Games and before all this I was involved in the revival of the docks, the DLR, the Jubilee line, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, a new  town at Beckton, Excel; Ive been really lucky to have been associated with the successful planning of so much of this bit of East London. The new Legacy Area is larger than the Olympic Site and offers further challenges and opportunities."

I make no apologies for this being the longest interview I have recorded. In my view, there ought to be a separate Olympic medal (or perhaps a gong) for this special lady, a truly exceptional planner. It was a pleasure to speak to such a consummate professional.

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, May 2012