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Working constructively with the private sector

23 August 2011

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

Paul Watson, Strategic Director for Community and Economic Regeneration, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.

Paulwatson 006_WEBThe clue to the purpose of this interview is in Pauls job title. He runs all planning services but his responsibilities are all about planners engaging the community and delivering a prosperous economy. I trust that the PM and other ministers are listening?

Paul was also a very successful President of the Planning Officers Society. He has been at Solihull for 9 years and adopted a Total Place approach before it became fashionable.

I first came across Paul as a planner with whom the private sector could do business to mutual advantage, the words of a senior developer director called Ian Cox of Bellway. Bellway were one of my group of 4 top housebuilders and 4 top RSLs (or is it Registered Providers now?) that I persuaded to work in partnership to deliver mixed tenure housing across the country.

I met him in his office in Solihull town centre but looking out to pleasant countryside to talk about how planners can better engage the private sector in achieving planning objectives. For a practicing planner, Solihull has got everything  a major regeneration area North Solihull one of the most deprived areas in the country a vibrant town centre, high quality suburbs and beautiful countryside and villages, including a new village at Dickens Heath, Birmingham Airport, National Exhibition Centre, Jaguar Land Rover!

Pauls philosophy is simple: Whatever the economic or political context, public expenditure is a relatively small part of the development equation so to achieve planning and other public sector policy objectives, you have to do it mainly through influencing private sector investment. Planners need to recognise and understand commercial drivers and look to find common ground. In Solihull the default answer to growth is yes (Ministers still listening?) but this approach requires mutual understanding, respect and flexibility on all sides. It also requires that No can be a positive response if the reasons are good. It can give certainty to other acceptable investments and in a place as successful as Solihull it is important not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Finding that common ground and a way to say Yes and retaining respect when you say No is the key to a mutually beneficial relationship.

How important are public assets in the equation?

Public assets where they exist can be absolutely vital in both promoting and facilitating development. They can be delivered into a scheme in a way that assists cash flow at the difficult early stages of development, allow developers and investors to secure their funding on better terms and create a more viable scheme and so also provide the local authority with a strong negotiating lever to secure a high quality scheme and community benefits."

In North Solihull, public assets are put in to a regeneration partnership (a company formed by the Council, Bellway, WM Homes and Sigma) at existing use value and the increase in value generated by the planning process is recycled into the project to sustain regeneration.  Many of the planning returns are not on the Balance Sheet better design, community benefit, more affordable housing and many partnership negotiations are outside the formal planning process but are planning aware and policy driven.

Is there a proper 'commercial' return for the Council?

Im not a Finance Officer but I believe that, with the independent professional property advice provided to the partnership, the Council has secured appropriate returns."

The regeneration of North Solihull is a top priority for the Council and we have invested ourselves, through Prudential Borrowing, to maintain its momentum in a difficult economic climate but in the context of effective due diligence and risk management processes. We have also been successful in attracting other public investments from the likes of the former RDA, HCA and ERDF all to the benefit of the local community. However we are a true cross-sector partnership that looks to maximise private sector investment whilst retaining a strong focus on public policy objectives. And there are no issues regarding councillor directorships of the company as appears to have been the case elsewhere.

How has this all worked politically Paul?

Over the period of the partnership, we have changed from Conservative to No Overall control, to a Lib/Labour coalition and back to a Conservative administration, but the support for the North Solihull Partnership has been seamless."

"In mainstream planning, the changes in control have led to delays in the progress of LDF and we have recently relaunched the Core Strategy process in the context of the localism agenda. However we intend to have a draft plan in place by the end of this year.

Solihull also has other experience of public/private partnership. We with other metropolitan councils in the West Midlands hold a 49% share in Birmingham Airport which lies within Solihull. Here we worked in partnership with, and mediated between, the airport company and with local people to expedite the planning process for a major extension to the runway. And we are looking to exploit the huge potential for economic growth in this part of the Borough through a plan led approach to an area which comprises not only the airport but the National Exhibition Centre, Jaguar Land Rover, Birmingham Business Park (a Regional Investment Site) and the proposed Birmingham Interchange Station on HS2."

"We are also currently developing proposals for a major extension to our Touchwood Shopping Centre here in Solihull itself. The planning considerations of course have to remain independent of commercial negotiations but our contribution can increase value not reduce it and at the same time deliver a better outcome for the town as a whole.

As far as dealing with the private sector is concerned, what do you look for in a professional planner?

They must be 'design literate' and able to illustrate points with a pen on the back of an envelope, enthusiastic and positive, not simply 'regulators', unfortunately a characteristic of many planners that emerged during the 1980s. They must look to deliver the wider agenda of the Council, sometimes contributing, sometimes bringing interests together, and sometimes leading corporate projects. This earns respect from within the Council. If they are seen as only as pedantic regulators they are rightly pilloried. They need to have confidence and know who to put in touch with whom effective facilitators and mediators.

Paul also has a first degree in Psychology (Isnt that what planning is all about he quipped?) and I quizzed him on one of my favourite subjects, planning and community behaviour change.

Through the Development Management process we aim to do two things: capture through good design and planning obligations the benefits of development for local people and the economy; and mitigate its impacts on the local area, again through good design and obligations."

It is absolutely essential to start the dialogue before any application is prepared. As well as the planner providing access to all of the formal consultees to resolve technical  issues, the community needs to be engaged in a manner where they feel part of the process not a late invitee. Planning is about articulating and delivering the communitys needs and aspirations the right development, in the right place, at the right time, in the right way."

"In this respect, dont underestimate developers social conscience.

Are you sure about this.?

I am. It is enlightened self-interest. A prudent developer understands the need to develop a positive relationship with the local community and be seen to be a good developer leaving a beneficial legacy. Working with the grain is also so much easier.

Of course, all developers are different. To develop a positive relationship, planners require an understanding of their individual psychology. Personal relationships based on trust are essential. Ideally we build up relationships on a continuing basis and so often before the pre application stage.

Planners need to have a good sales technique, selling their ideas and contributions to developers and the community they serve. They need to act as an entrepreneur in the public sector, delivering solutions across the piece, if they are to provide an effective a spatial planning service.

Like me Paul sees planning at its best as the ultimate 'dating agency' and delivery vehicle.

Paul has lived up to his reputation as a deliverer of good developments and sustainable communities through partnership with the private sector. Its also interesting to note how many of those I am interviewing have 5 to 20 years' commitment to one authority. For those of us who moved on every 5 years or so during our career, we owe a great debt of gratitude to those who remain and see things through.

Solihull is extremely lucky to have Paul.

Interview conducted by Martin Willey 22 August 2011