I first met Waheed Nazir, Strategic Director, Economy (Interim) at Birmingham City Council at the 2015 RTPI Planning Convention after he delivered the best presentation there on his work in Birmingham. When talking to the RTPI team he seemed the obvious choice to share his knowledge and approach to the CPD subject of communications.
Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).
Waheed, communications covers a wide range of techniques and situations from one-to-one to presenting to a couple of thousand at an international conference. How do you approach the subject?
Whatever the circumstance it's about delivering a clear, simple message about what the vision is and what your strategy is. In planning, it's also about avoiding professional jargon but always centred on "Creating Better Places". The message has to be relevant to whoever the audience is and not overcomplicated and it should be in words that allow them to disagree if that is what they want. How would a child understand what "growth" means? Is housing going to be good for you or bad? Is commercial development going to provide job opportunities or competition for your job? We seem to make planning a complicated subject often having to address mixed messages, but the essence of planning is simple. Ebenezer Howard didn't make it complicated - Not having to travel too far to work, living in a pleasant place with good facilities. It's the process of planning that has become complicated not the objectives. The strategic planning process has been "simplified" to improve it – the strategic duty to co-operate replacing RSSs - but this has made the process more complicated.
Take "localism". On the one hand central Government is focused on more housing growth, but conversely localism is supposed to give communities a say in what happens locally and they may not understand the value of growth and consequently resist it because they can only imagine the disadvantages. We need to focus on the outcomes we are seeking to achieve. We can't bring forward needed development unless it comes with the supporting infrastructure.
Reaction to growth on both sides is inevitably defensive and communities may have valid concerns that should be addressed, especially concerning the infrastructure required to support new housing. 6,000 new units generates significant requirements for three primary and two secondary schools and public transport. If I live in an adjoining neighbourhood with overcrowded schools I will resist this new development unless the new schools are built and provide me with an improved situation, not a detrimental one. In the current age of austerity, councillors are placed in tense situations regarding priorities for public investment and what can be achieved from developers' contributions. Growth needs careful and honest explanation if the benefits and consequences are to be understood. In cities the choices are overcrowding in existing housing or an increase in housing supply. We need to explain that you need to increase densities on brownfield land and increase supply on greenfield land wherever the municipal boundary lies. Communicating the consequences of action or inaction, whether your advice is taken or not, allows you to develop a mature relationship with politicians at whatever level.
From a strategic point of view, inward investment, essential to our Birmingham economy, will only be attracted if there is a diversity and volume of new housing.
In Birmingham, Waheed, you have a very multicultural society, constantly changing. The communication requirements must vary?
The demographic challenges are many. The constant change in our society means you can spend resource in understanding one series of issues, then the community changes and it becomes another series of issues. Considerable time is required to understand cultures and religions before effective engagement can take place on terms communities understand. Breaches of planning are particularly challenging but conversely opportunities arise to deliver positive regeneration. As an example, a listed derelict pub and a series of vacant shops in a BME community, became the subject of a local initiative to create jobs, upskill residents and improve the quality of the place. Refurbishing the pub as a restaurant, a community hub and shops was welcomed by local businesses. We spent time learning the culture and outlining opportunities for the community to improve their quality of life. The richness reflected in diverse cultures with different skills, offers different perspectives to deliver planning objectives, but good communication gives results.
Planners need to be entrepreneurial but identify bespoke solutions, albeit with significant resource requirements, quite a challenge at this moment in time; but success breeds confidence and energy and is a rewarding experience for all. Many of our new communities offer a different perspective, but their ambition and commitment is there to be captured. You become able to communicate, vision, ideas and potential if you learn to communicate "in the same language".
The statutory Local Plan process is not always as flexible as it needs to be to accommodate communication, delivery and outcomes. How do you approach this issue?
We approach Local Plans as a series of adopted principles allowing for flexibility in the delivery of planning solutions. In Curzon, the location of the new HS2 station, we identified the "DNA" of the area then offered five big "moves." We provided a clear framework for design and connectivity, but are not specific about what goes where. In Longbridge, we were more specific but the history and then recession meant that previous decisions had to be reviewed. We believed that a new superstore carefully located could increase shopper traffic to existing district centres and we communicated regularly with local communities and shopkeepers maintaining a dialogue as information became available, explaining the benefits of the solution that was emerging. Rather than annually monitoring the plan, we engaged in a continuous process of communication. I seek to create a place rather than simply deliver a plan and our Big City Plan provided the principles to deliver growth.
Waheed, you mentioned that austerity had affected your staff. How did you communicate the decisions that needed to be taken?
The organisational structure was based primarily on single disciplines. The value of multi-disciplinary approaches emerged and provided a framework for addressing the loss of jobs. With some new models of delivery I was left with incentivised and motivated teams and staff from other disciplines as well as planners. The process has led to staff ownership and a more integrated approach to place making but it remains a constantly changing process. Effective planners need to understand the cultures of a wide range of disciples – transport, economics, education, social care, inward investment – if they are to deliver successful solutions. It's not been an easy process, but my family background in business also helped me to understand and be confident about approaches that achieved a quick response to changing circumstances. It also became evident that many beneficial changes would take some time to settle down and change cultures and behaviours. However, this year, we are able to support ten planning graduates and they start on a different basis to predecessors, immediately becoming involved in an exciting and outcome based environment. Mistakes are made but if staff believe you will support them, then they learn and develop quickly. We offer graduates opportunities in many different roles, give them space and they respond positively, effectively increasing resource capacity and maturing quickly.
What would you say are the primary communication skills planners need to develop?
Planners need to understand where we are, their place. There needs to be a collective narrative and this needs to be described by senior managers in a clear fashion.
Planners need to be articulate and confident but modest and ensure, I emphasise again, that they understand and include the needs and expectations of other disciplines in delivering results.
I support planners that I believe have the potential for more senior roles, placing them in positions of responsibility such as engaging local communities, speaking at conferences and writing articles, with my support but in their own names. I start them in round table discussions then move them into situations where the communication needs will be bigger perhaps presenting on my behalf at smaller, then larger conferences, albeit with support. I want my staff to represent the city not just me!
Principal messages should cover no more than three key areas. Presentations should be full of illustrations not endless text. However, as a technique, I rarely rehearse presentations and expect to be able to deliver messages from memory and from the heart perhaps with a few moments of reflection in the train on the way to a meeting. Do I want to offer a safe place to invest? Do I want to offer the potential for innovation? Do I want to demonstrate an acceptable level of risk? You need to be clear about what impression you hope people will take away with them.
Different techniques are nonetheless required, not just experience. Confidence or arrogance in communications Waheed?
It's a fine line! For most circumstances, especially in a political environment, confidence is the impression you try to provide. But, if you are dealing with the investment and banking communities, then like them, a touch of arrogance does not go amiss! Your audience needs to feel your energy or you will lose them. I learn most about the effectiveness of communication from questions, so you need to be able to think on your feet and if you don't know the answer then offer to provide it when you do, and do so!
Stick to your message whatever the question! People only take a couple of points away from a presentation so make sure your messages are clear.
What do you feel is the current state of the profession as perceived by others?
Many professional staff perhaps feel that more could be done to articulate the beneficial role of planners. The perception is more one of our being defensive rather than strategic and many planners need to understand the complexities and challenges of engaging with Government and how to promote the benefits of planning.
As a manager, I support future planners who will stand up for themselves and the profession. We need to create the belief early on that planners should believe in the "science" of planning and what it can achieve. We host planners from other authorities demonstrating how to share responsibilities to mutual benefit. We work with schools to offer placements and promote vacation projects as an introduction to planning and we have been successful in persuading students to go onto planning courses. Our planners go to all schools in Birmingham to explain what planning can do, raising the profile of planning.
I've spent a lot of my time this year with investors, energy and infrastructure contractors at main board level. I explain that they will improve their returns on capital and IRRs substantially if they invest in Birmingham. I speak to those who will have the most influence on improving prosperity in Birmingham and that planning provides solutions to a whole and prosperous economy.
In my dealings with investors and developers, private equity firms and international groups, I need to be able to demonstrate that Birmingham can provide what they want in terms of people and places. They need to feel that they can become partners with the city in the delivery of their objectives.
And a final communications message Waheed?
Planning can take a long time to deliver a return but communities and the private sector need to believe that planners are the leaders of transformational and beneficial change.
Many thanks for such an inspirational conversation Waheed.
Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).
To find out more about communication, mediation and negotiation at the RTPI.