The eleventh in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.
Simon Coop, Associate Director NLP and runner up, Young Planner of the Year 2011
For my second YP interview, I visited the Cardiff offices of NLP consultants the RTPI's Planning Consultancy of the Year to meet Simon Coop the runner up to Nikola Miller in the 2011 Young Planner of the Year. I first met Simon when, on behalf of NLP, he made a presentation to a Housing Summit I had organised on the "Economic Benefits of Housing". He was staggeringly good and also made one of the most coherent demonstrations of the purpose and value of planning generally. I then invited him to present to the South West Housing Initiative Parliamentary Group at Portcullis House where again he distinguished himself.
I've had the pleasure of interviewing Nikola the winner of YP 2011, Simon, and she spoke of your grace and humour as runner up! You know that I have been impressed with your clarity in communicating the purpose of planning. Where did it all start?
"My uncle was a planner CPO at Oldham and now a Planning Inspector, so I knew the language and the career. I always had an interest in human geography and after getting a Geography degree at Exeter, where I did a planning module, and as I was fed up with studying and wanted a job, I worked on a summer placement at Fisher Wilson in London that was eventually taken over by White Young Green and I really enjoyed that. I applied for the 2 Year Planning Masters courses at Oxford Brookes and Cardiff but once I'd visited the latter I knew that was where I wanted to be. After being accepted, I attended by chance an Open Day in Easter 2000 regarding an ESRC scholarship which I subsequently secured giving me a "living grant" while I studied thus giving me a 'virtual job'.
"I enjoyed the course headed by Huw Thomas but still felt it was education rather than training for work. I had to learn rather quickly the difference between traditional academic essay and thesis style writing (Harvard or Footnotes) and reporting to clients and planning authorities. I joined NLP in 2002 and quickly developed a pithy style of writing, conveying messages, answering clients' questions and making sure they understood the situation, dealing with different types of client – developer, planner, manager. Normally a short report, or even an email with a few key bullet points, was required albeit backed by a technical report. I learned quickly that trust, earned over a period of time, from both the client and the local authority, was essential for a productive dialogue. Evidence is the key to soundness but we have to sometimes use non technical language to influence councillors; we tailor communications to the particular audience.
"In the private sector the right answer is a given, we are the technical experts, but getting our clients to move towards a realisable solution where money is the key. The general challenge of viability represents a good example of where we need to work hard to ensure that schemes can be deliverable. If we can persuade LPAs of our preferred solution and its compliance with strategy, then changing Section 106 contributions that were achievable in a better market might be the difference between a scheme progressing or stopping. I wasn't taught viability just development economics."
Viability is now part of one of the criteria for RTPI accreditation of courses Simon. Also, the RTPI has contributed to viability advice from the HCA and RICS. The current components of most accepted residual appraisal methods exclude tax considerations and provide for the introduction of current land values which are not necessarily the same as book value. This means that viability is not an exact science?
"The internal processes used by house builders are very sophisticated and commercially privileged. As consultants, we deal with the outputs and use the HCA toolkit as the 'public face' and have been successful on a number of occasions in demonstrating that a reduction in Section 106 contributions is necessary in order to enable a scheme to progress. It is perhaps this discussion around deliverability that is the most important element in the viability debate. It represents the 'so what' factor. We have also done some work for local authorities and know only too well that if a developer says they won't build without reduced contributions it is a matter for the planning authority to determine whether it wishes to see schemes go ahead or not. In the current climate, sometimes something is better than nothing and we always seek to persuade our clients to deliver well designed sustainable schemes but a discussion may be necessary to agree a priority – a contribution to roads rather than education, for example.
"Perhaps more importantly, planners should offer a vision and then listen to and address prejudices. Dialogue should cover the consequences of different course of action. As an example we ignore at our peril the economic time bomb surrounding the care needs of a growing elderly population. Planning should provide the framework for a healthy lifestyle, a better quality of life.
"For housing, need and supply are different. Capacity constraints can't ignore need. The better off can always compete in the housing market and it is impossible to stop in migration simply by closing off supply."
Simon you clearly think around the impact of planning, especially addressing economic issues. What would you offer to sell planning as a career?
"I would start by asking what the person wanted in a career. Do you want to influence people's lives for the better? Do you want a change a place for better or worse? Do you want to directly influence the economy in a beneficial way? Do you have a vision for a community and do you want to help deliver it? If so planning is the only profession that can have a major influence over these things. If that excites you, then become a planner! It's not just about collecting evidence: it's about using it.
"I've been working for some time on a major scheme in the West Country for which we have recently secured consent on appeal. What was lacking on the part of the local authority was a correct focus on evidence and then a clear vision on what should be delivered. What our proposal did was to justify over 150 houses including affordable ones, provide open space, and protect wild life, all in negotiation with the local community.
"The NPPF and Housing Strategy draw attention to economic impact and at NLP we always introduce economic issues into discussions between house builders, local authorities and communities. The housing crisis is a major economic as well as a social issue. Housing in the right place and quality can have a beneficial environmental impact – regenerating derelict land, introducing new open space, providing locally needed affordable housing. It's not just "jobs good, housing's bad;" you need both for economic growth. Changes in economic activity rates are difficult to establish or project. Experience nonetheless suggests that domestic and international migrants coming into an area are essential for a successful economy. New housing, as well as existing housing, plays a part in supporting the local economy. Planners need to explain the benefits of providing houses as well as the consequences of not providing them.
"With the lack of public investment, the private sector will be the primary supplier of housing."
How best do you think planners might influence changes in the behaviour of a community to bring about healthier and sustainable life styles Simon, channelling Localism energy?
"It's going to take time. We have to change the perceptions of people that we are just about regulation and demonstrate that we have much wider aspirations. We need to show what planning can do through education especially in schools. Planners need to demonstrate their understanding of the reality of economic recession and help councillors respond positively and effectively. We need to be 'persuaders' and demonstrate where planning has provided successful developments for communities elsewhere and also show where we got it wrong and explain why so we can deliver solutions in new areas. Travel Plans, energy efficient design all feature and we need to take developers with us, 'doing the right thing' but guiding residents."
What's missing in planning or what would increase the chances of the beneficial economic impact of planning being understood and recognised?
"Planners need a proper language to persuade councillors and help them persuade their communities of the need for an increase in supply of housing. I return to my point about vision – the need for a mixed community needs to be sold. Leadership is required especially where councillor's re-election may in their view rely on stopping development. Prejudice and resistance to change are inevitable issues but we need to make sure the workers who deliver services are housed and the age time bomb, the increase in dependency from those who don't work being supported by those who do must be part of the discussion must be addressed, even if solutions are at a larger than local scale. You can't just stop people moving in, so to sustain local communities, you need new housing."
Where do you hope to be in 10 years time?
"I want to be at the forefront of planning, at Director level at NLP. I would like to be recognised as innovative and particularly effective technically and regarding deliverability. I currently have a small team. I would like to be in charge of a larger one where planners at NLP would say "I want to be in Simon's Team. He does interesting, productive and successful things".
"I would like to be even more involved in professional development expanding my mentoring role. The old APC was actually much easier than the current one but there are still issues of consistency that I know the RTPI are trying to resolve. I mentor 6 licentiates and work closely with them to help them through the new process.
"All planners are to some extent technocrats but I'm still young enough to be ideological so I still want to change places for the better.
"I suppose in conclusion I want to be recognised as a 'teacher' and 'salesperson' for good planning, helping people develop and do their job better."
Another exhausting Young Planner interview but one from someone with a different perspective on life in planning. If Nikola is an ambassador for the RTPI then Simon is an ambassador, may be a missionary for the profession. He will go far I am sure.
Interview conducted by Martin Willey, September 2012.