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Richard Grant Interview

Decision Making

Richard GrantPlymouth Planning Department under Paul Barnard have an enviable record of innovation in local authority planning having won the Jubilee Cup and other RTPI Awards including in 2015 a prize for excellence in plan making practice for "The Plymouth Plan". This plan brings together many other Plymouth plans under one document by the Local Plan Team, the Head of which is Richard Grant.

Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).


Richard, the title of this interview is "Decision Making" and clearly the Plymouth Plan leads all corporate planning activity in Plymouth and achieves one of my favourite objectives, delivering planning outcomes beyond the Local Plan and Development Management responsibilities. The decisions taken by the Council are now taken within a planning context. How did this situation arrive?

I spend a lot of my time explaining the value and role of the planning process. Why were the planners asked to do it? We had Council confidence because we were the first English city to get our core strategy approved. I spent the first six months of work on the Plymouth Plan (which incorporates the review of our Core Strategy)understanding how other Council departments operated then understanding how responsibilities outside the Council might be addressed. The drivers behind the Plymouth Plan are all around "creating better places and great communities." People want to see planning delivering places they enjoy living and working in. The cross party support is based on achieving growth, understanding how Councillors work, and then earning the respect of other Council and public agencies to operate together, and reduce bureaucracy in achieving their objectives. Our partners discovered that the planning process can deliver their vision and objectives. We have brought together some 130 plans and internal strategies under the mantle of the Statutory Local Plan, striving to integrate policies and align spending plans. Initially we concentrated on collecting intelligence and data to create an agreed common data base and then discussed the role of strategy with all partners to create a common culture and language. The LDF Core Strategy had already gained plaudits from health professionals anticipating the transfer of public health to local authorities. The new Director of Public Health agreed early on that there would not be a separate Health and Well-Being Strategy; it would be covered in the Plymouth Plan. This commitment certainly gave confidence to some of the other Council services such as child poverty, education and communities to see the Plymouth Plan as a way to address a wide range of political objectives.

It has taken a great deal of talking and understanding of different agendas and service delivery, but we have now arrived at a place where the Plymouth Plan is the Council's approved single policy framework.  The process has been long and continuous, talking to the right people responsible for delivery, persuading them that the approach was "a good idea." We sought common drivers with common outputs that we and others were trying to achieve with an underlying objective as well of addressing savings and efficiencies, all discussed on a one to one basis. Plymouth planners are now "entrepreneurial" in establishing where the funding streams are, then focussed on the delivery of outcomes. We then consulted widely on synthesising information to understand common ground then turn it into shared strategic objectives. Discovering partner drivers is the clue to applying an effective Plan approach, that and a "can do" culture.


Richard, how did the Statutory Development Plan help this process?

In Plymouth, the Plan is the basis of the Council's expenditure and investment programme and the process we use is comparable to the "due diligence" process for assessing development proposals. We have also taken the private development and investment sectors with us, despite their behavioural differences, who welcome the clarity of a corporate approach and trust us to deliver our responsibilities for growth and reduce their risks.


Why do you think other councils have not embraced the Plymouth approach?

We have a reputation for making things happen despite the impact of austerity. Perhaps others do not have such a proactive, cross party political environment. Having a clear, well understood and fully supported vision and a culture that promotes cross team working certainly helps. Our experience is that planners can be "salespeople" who are enthusiastic about what they do. Here planners enjoy themselves, want to create a great Plan and are not weighed down by mechanics. We want the planning system to work for us and the communities we serve. We embrace the concept of localism, but it is about taking decisions at the correct level. It gave us the opportunity to consider using the Plan to deliver other strategies as part of a process of delivering the Plymouth that councillors were looking for. Take the five year housing land supply requirement: it may not be 'fair' in the way it is applied, but the principle of being focused on the delivery of sites and being on top of the whole development process from plan to build is right! The process is not going to go away so we aim to use the requirement to bring housing forward. You have to address Government policies, but in a manner that turns them into the achievement of planning objectives.


Tell us more about the partner engagement process and how it impacted on decision making?

We carried out an audit of strategies and interpreted Government announcements on policy and cuts in a corporate but "planning" way looking across the piece and establishing where planning could offer a positive outcome. We articulated what each proposal meant for Plymouth, and with political objectives in place, respected organisational structures and responsibilities, including external partners, described what a Plymouth Plan would mean to them. We identified individuals with the personality to drive constructive conversations. Our new Director of Public Health recognised the value of a co-ordinated approach to the Health and Well-Being Strategy. He built confidence and our network expanded to create a critical mass of commitment.


How was the community engaged Richard?

We carried out consultation simultaneously with the internal processes. We have a multi-disciplinary Neighbourhood Planning Team full of young enthusiasts, who are not just planners, and they approached the community on the basis of "what do you want?" They use a process of continual engagement so when circumstances change in the light of new information, it is not a shock if we have to review our plans or address changes in circumstance. We used a language that the community could understand and fed back our responses to their views. We provided a "sofa" and coffee table and a blank plan recording people's views and aspirations, uninhibited by a planning process. We took these around communities inviting people to have a conversation with us about what they wanted for the future, meeting them in the pub, on the beach or in the shopping centres. We used the intelligence we gained as evidence for the statutory  planning process. We believe, this and other initiatives such as a "pop up shop" and kids "pictures of the city they wanted to see" gave our communities the confidence that the Council had their interests at heart.

Inevitably we started with the whinges, but slowly we were able to "inform" people on the strength of the planning process and the value of discussing planning issues. Planners led the process, but other professionals engaged and saw the value of the planning process. One day was focussed on health and the health professionals came in with advice, blood pressure tests and open conversations. We started with open dialogue then later introduced evidence and assessments for further discussion.

Another example of engaging communities in decision making was the involvement of the Plymouth Octopus Project. We provided 21 Topic Papers and assessments for individual Planning Policy areas and persuaded community groups and local councillors to lead discussions on the future of Plymouth rather than the planners. There were nearly 100 events that cost us £50 each for tea, coffee and biscuits, but they secured ownership of the Plan.


Plymouth has been subject to changes in political control. How did this impact on decision making?

The political objectives are pretty much the same.

We have used councillors as the conduit for local community groups. Our councillors of all parties have found this a hugely valuable process, helping them perform more effectively as local leaders. When we published the first draft of the Plymouth Plan, clearly a draft not a commitment, with 50 policies all loaded with meaning, they and their constituents all understood the vision, what Plymouth should look like in the future, what were the objectives and target outcomes and what were the indicators that would establish what was happening. All the time we were aiming to get wholesale buy in to the Plymouth Plan. We started with where we were, then objectives based on a vision, target outputs then performance indicators.


How are you measuring success Richard?

The challenge is how to provide corporate groups with targets and indicators that are the basis for public and private investment, but still retain reality in a planning process that requires flexibility and the potential to address change over a long period. The indicators include house building, commercial and industrial delivery, life expectations, employment and educational attainment, commenting on how we are doing rather than detailed monitoring of process. For the purposes of managing the workload of producing the plan, we have decided to first set out the plan strategy, strategic objectives and policies in the Plymouth Plan Part 1, now complete; and to then work on site allocations, designations and the detailed spatial elements of the plan.  Part of this work means we are going back to partners, asking them to think about delivery of their objectives in a physical spatial sense.


I think everyone is aware that the River Tamar is a real boundary for the Cornish. How are you addressing the duty to co-operate?

I cannot deny that this can be a challenge! We have good relations at officer level and have used the Duty to Cooperate to raise cross boundary issues around the Housing Market Area, which extends into south east Cornwall, and transport links.  We hope that in due course the logic of our co-ordinated approach will bear fruit.


Richard, finally, what lessons in decision making can you offer to planners from the Plymouth Plan approach?

  1. Understanding and communicating the value of a statutory planning process in creating a vision that all embrace, delivering corporate objectives and providing clarity for private investment,
  2. Flexibility in decision making, building and sustaining networks and with a governance structure understanding the different components of the CEO and CMT operation and the political consequences, clearly identifying where change is needed,
  3. Providing firm evidence for policy and proposals, demonstrating professional integrity so that all have confidence in the rationale of a co-ordinated, policy aligned and delivery integrated approach,
  4. Generate confidence through salesmanship and trust,
  5. Knowing when to be conciliatory and grabbing good ideas that are better than yours!
  6. Understand and demonstrate that the planning consultation process is not a one off, but a continuing process of engagement,
  7. For monitoring, rather than addressing whether targets have been achieved, introduce overarching policies then a process to measure progress and whether changes are necessary to achieve vision, objectives and outcomes.


I look forward to further evidence emerging of Plymouth's leadership in effective planning over the coming years Richard. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the Plymouth approach to planning is clearly enjoyable.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us.


Find out more about effective decision making at the RTPI.