The twelfth in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.
Louise Brooke- Smith, Brooke Smith Planning Consultants Ltd
This is my second interview with a chartered planner who is in the private sector. Louise Brooke-Smith runs a planning practice in Birmingham and last year was elected as the first female Senior Vice President of the RICS, who, further to due process, will take the Presidential position in 2014. I met her at joint professional events in Birmingham and London, then at the RIBA Stirling Prize event in Rotherham last year. I was very impressed with her command of arguments for effective planning and interested as to why the RICS had managed to capture her as a planner for high office.
Where did it all start Louise?
"I was a Grammar School girl from Congleton, Cheshire and while I always had an interest in 'travelling and places' I actually had my sights set on being a mining engineer. Indeed I succeeded in getting a place at Imperial College (the first woman to be offered a place for mining!). Being the enterprising girl I was, I also applied for a National Coal Board scholarship. The Equal Opportunities Act had just come in and, being suspicious, I made two applications; one as 'Mr Brook-Smith', the other as 'Ms Brooke-Smith' and surprise, surprise the male applicant got shortlisted! I challenged the decision successfully but then for lots of reasons didn't quite make it to Imperial – but I think A-level grades had something to do with that! Following my interest in human geography, an opportunity arose to read for a Joint Land Economics and Housing course at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). I eventually pursued the Urban Land Economics course which was recognised by the RICS which is when I became a student member. The 4 year course had a placement year which I spent initially with Coventry Council Estates Department and then by good fortune and considerable luck of being in the right place at the right time, was offered a post as a building surveyor at a Mission Hospital Centre in Zaire. I had met the Director of the Mission in Coventry when he was visiting his son who was studying at Warwick University, and learnt that he was looking for a land surveyor.
"I did a crash course in the use of a theodolite and he offered me a job. I ended up leading a building project at the Mission – working on a range of concrete houses using local materials and a hydro dam scheme. The houses are still standing! I returned to Sheffield and in my final year took the planning and development specialism. Following successful completion of the course and having enjoyed the international experience I became a Field Development Officer for the Quakers in Bhopal, India, 18 months after the terrible chemical explosion. I worked on various biomass energy and construction projects.
"On returning to the UK I secured my MRICS in 1988 having taken a job at Birmingham City Council in the newly created Economic Development (ED) Department. I was a 'hybrid surveyor/planner' and acted as a link officer between economic development (headed by Richard Green) and the planning department (headed at the time by Graham Shaylor). The ED Department grew eventually from 25 to 400 people and they kindly sponsored me to do a 2 year day release course at Birmingham Polytechnic to qualify as a Planner.
"Birmingham City also supported me when I was awarded the National Scholarship from (CASLE) the Commonwealth Association of Surveying and Land Economy to work with the UN on 'Tribal and Colonial Land Rights in East Africa'. My work out in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania eventually meant I worked on a number of slum improvement schemes. I still refer to these today in my work as an RICS Disaster Management Commissioner.
"On my return to the UK, and having secured my MRTPI, I was offered a job in the private sector, at Cheshire Gibson in Birmingham, who had just merged with Debenham Tewson Chinnocks, subsequently DTZ. It wasn't an easy decision to move from the largest and very dynamic local authority in Birmingham and I initially turned down the job but changed my mind on holiday and to my delight they still offered me the post - on an increased package!
"My Africa experience continued while I was with DTZ, when I undertook further work for the UN in South Africa and Swaziland. At the same time I met my future husband, an accountant, who had similar international leanings and a few years later, we decided to both resign our respective posts to travel for a year as part of our honeymoon. I also undertook work for a prospective PhD and we funded the trip through a series of lectures on the planning system. These were given in places as far flung as Pakistan, China, Kuala Lumpa, Singapore, Darwin, Sydney, Auckland and Victoria. The trip coincided with the recession in the early 90's and although I was offered a job in Hong Kong, we decided to return with the intention to set up my own planning practice in 1993. However, on returning to the UK, I learnt that Bryant's were looking for a Regional Planner so I joined them for a salary that was substantially better than when I had left the UK. After a good year with Bryants I decided the time was right and I left to set up my own Practice in the Midlands.
"I fitted a lot into the time before my 30th birthday!
"I set up 18 years ago on the 6th June 1994, and I can still remember that my first job was referred to me by Pinsents in Birmingham. I am still in touch with the client and with the fee, I bought a cello for £400! I still have the cheque in a frame.
"The company grew, as did my family, with the addition of two girls. After 10 years, I had taken on staff and moved offices and felt we needed to make the next big move. We decided to merge with a Bristol based company. It worked well for 3 years but our national presence and slightly different client base meant that we were hitting different markets and in 2010 we undertook a management buy out and rebranded as Brooke Smith Planning Consultants Ltd. The firm is thriving with a growing workforce, an ever expanding national client base and strong affiliations with a building surveyor in London and architects in Leeds - hence allowing us to expand our national coverage."
With such a varied background, what is the culture of your practice Louise?
"Although I technically hold the majority of shares in the business, we operate a 'collective' approach to all decisions. We have a strong and growing turnover even in these challenging times and have always traded in the black. We don't want to be a big anonymous firm and are very comfortable with our size. With 13 in the office - plus an office dog 'Leah' we are friendly bunch, and with affiliated offices in London and Leeds we have grown a strong nationwide coverage. Our business is not concentrated in one narrow area but covers a wide spectrum – residential, retail, and commercial, individual projects and broader asset management – and large elements of our work are repeat business or referrals based on our successful track record. Generally it reflects good recommendations from lawyers, architects and surveyors with about 20% public sector work on the books at any one time. We definitely have a commercial mindset towards planning work and have a reputation of 'problem solving' for our clients rather than simply regurgitating the regulations. Our work is very varied and earlier this year we completed work for Walsall MBC on a Local Development Order for 146 ha of Darlaston, West Midlands – one of the biggest and most complicated Orders yet to see the light of day. We pride ourselves on the fact that when we act for or with local authorities they trust our professionalism and our expertise."
The primary reason for RTPI APC referrals is ethics. Do you face many ethical challenges in your "commercial" approach Louise?
"We do decline some cases and won't work with some developers or where the potential client has a track record we are uncomfortable with. And, in accordance with the RTPI Code of Conduct, as a matter of professionalism, we won't accept commissions where there is already a planning consultant on board. We seek to mediate between our client and local authorities for an appropriate result and will certainly press a point of principle but play absolutely by the book; in fact our integrity and our business ethics, are important and recognisable hallmarks of the practice!
"Our biggest threat tends to be from other property professionals who think planning is an easy game and we are often bought into to pick up the pieces when they find it isn't that easy and some of the fundamental issues have been missed – thus jeopardising the client's proposals."
When I first met you it was as Regional Chair of the West Midlands arm of the RICS and now you will become its first female President, internationally. While you have previously been active in the RTPI, understandably you had to choose one 'Institute' and your heart lies with your first love – the RICS! That said, where do planners need to improve?
"Planners must be more knowledgeable and realistic about viability. A real understanding is required of the development and investment world and business in general if they are to secure the reputation they seek. As an RICS 'Planning and Development' Surveyor I have been trained in appraisal and valuation matters and I feel that sometimes, RTPI courses fail to impart that commercial edge. LPA planners need to be able to negotiate on an informed basis if they are not to be perceived as a barrier to economic growth. This will become particularly important in the application of CIL.
"I am sure that local authority planners will respond by firstly saying they are held responsible for design outcomes which tend to deteriorate in a poor market and secondly with the shortage of public resources for affordable housing and infrastructure they have to capture essential community investment from development and land values. Why should future communities suffer because a developer paid too much for the land?
"I genuinely believe that good design and appropriate contributions to infrastructure are achievable by negotiation, in fact planners' understanding of development economics can increase the chances of development taking place in an appropriate manner. This is hugely important in the current economic climate. I have no answer to a developer paying too much for land - that's his/her choice. But conversely, land supply is drying up because landowners are holding back land until values increase! A skilful planner will find ways of securing the optimum solution by addressing such issues as phasing of contributions and demonstrating that good design increases the chances of a sale or rent.
"My experience is that planning students do not have a realistic training in viability. More and better planner understanding of the whole development viability process, a dialogue that is informed on both sides, will lead to more effective planning and a better reputation for the profession as a whole. In my experience it is the lack of understanding on the commerciality of a scheme that can lead to delays and positions that are unachievable. The RICS has sought ways of improving communications and knowledge in this area and the results of this exercise came with its paper issued last Autumn. For example, to deliver CIL decisions, they must be informed by a realistic approach if schemes are to happen. I believe passionately in the scope for more effective planning through negotiation on viability and I see no conflict with achieving good design. There are lots of examples where this works."
Looking at the 2 professional bodies, what differences exist and where might the RTPI increase its effectiveness through co-operation with the RICS?
"I am a visiting lecturer at various planning schools which are either affiliated to the RICS or the RTPI. There are clearly differences in the scope of subjects covered but I do think there is potential to look at joint courses. One area, already highlighted is viability and economics. Certainly there is scope for emerging planners to increase their knowledge of development economics. In fact it should be a pre-requisite for RTPI accreditation. Those officers who have a proper understanding of viability are the most effective.
"As for the opportunity for co-operation between the two organisations – well of course there are clear opportunities and I would always support a good working joint practice, particularly when it comes to lobbying and influencing national land use policy and development management regulations.
"The viability issue is one of the relatively new RTPI accreditation criteria but I am not sure whether it is a regular feature of Partnership Board scrutiny. In the 2 schools where I am an External Examiner it features strongly but I accept that it is really important and I suspect it is more a matter for CPD scrutiny?"
Where else might the RTPI expand?
"The RICS now has a growing international membership. We are accrediting university courses in the Far East, India and China. We set internationally recognised quality standards that are becoming the accepted norm and are invited to work with a growing number of international governments on their property, construction, land and environmental policy formation. We advocate the highest possible standards and regularly demonstrate this to government, as a result of which we have a close relationship allowing us to test emerging policy effectively and credibly. This also means that we are able to attract the best people around the globe – being the property profession to aspire to.
"Perhaps the RTPI is perceived still as the profession of local government planning officers, albeit erroneously as I am aware there is a growing private sector membership. The RICS is not a members 'club'. We value our 16 different faculties that address the various specialism of the property industry and our World Regions have a significant influence over activities and play an active part in different parts of the world. There is a considerable pride amongst members in being a 'chartered surveyor'. On a personal level, I would hope there will always be an RICS, an RTPI and an RIBA. Each has its own rationale and influencing power and while collaboration is very important and can be used effectively; three voices are sometime far louder than one consensus view. Yes we could and indeed do co-operate, but independence has its benefits.
The RTPI is the only one of the three that is a registered charity but both it and the RICS has 'public benefit' as part of its Chartered obligations. I hope you will accept that recent and proposed changes in the governance and operation of the RTPI are beginning to reap rewards?
"I believe they are but the pace of change might be quicker!"
My usual question Louise; what do you look for in a planner?
"You must want to be a planner with intensity, integrity and enthusiasm. You need life experience and a fair degree of common sense, not just academic training. A planner needs to be realistic and knowledgeable about the development industry and the economy. She or he needs to be able to address the policy and regulatory environment imaginatively looking at interpretation without ambiguity, not in a narrow minded manner. Above all a planner needs common sense on viability! So, be realistic about business and get as wide an experience as possible; public, private, voluntary or internationally, and you will become a sound planner. This will improve the reputation of the profession."
As a planner with experience of public, private and voluntary sectors, I can see exactly where Louise is coming from and continue to be impressed by her direct and clear approach to planning, an almost unstated ambition for planning and planners that is both welcome and 'healthy'. Perhaps, when she becomes President of the RICS, especially in our RTPI Centenary year, there will be more opportunities to engage. She is yet another perfect example of a 'can do' planner that mixes professionalism, with integrity and clearly delivers results and an image of planning and planners from which the profession can really benefit.
Interview conducted by Martin Willey, January 2013.