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Making favourable decisions

Getting positive results is all about ensuring that the right planning schemes are approved, says Richard Patient of Indigo Public Affairs.

How many public affairs agencies, such as ours, have to deliver tangible results for their clients on a regular basis, every week of the year?

Sure, many agencies will tell you they get results, but aren't they just successful milestones? They've spoken to a minister, perhaps he or she has agreed with them. Maybe they've lobbied a civil servant, or been successful in having a question put down in Parliament.

Barnardo's victory in changing the Government's approach to adoption is certainly a major success, but how often does a result like that happen?

In the planning and development world, councils make hundreds of decisions on planning applications every week. We will be working on at least one of them, possibly the most controversial or complicated one.

Of course, our job is not to make the scheme contentious. But, inevitably, anything that involves building hundreds of homes or putting a large food store or industrial plant near someone's home will stir feelings.

In the age of the coalition's new planning regime, our job is to make that scheme most attractive to the widest number of people, and ultimately to make sure the representatives of those people understand its benefits.

Our job is to help local councillors, the unsung heroes of the political world, feel good - or at least content - about making a favourable decision.

Sometimes local councillors should listen to local residents, particularly where the resident has a valid point. Sometimes, where the resident is riled up by NIMBY anger, our job is to point out that, perhaps on this occasion, councillors should not listen to them.

Most of the time, councillors should listen to their council officers. But councillors have to live with their decisions, so sometimes they must set aside their officers' recommendation.

Over the past year, we helped councillors set aside refusal recommendations from officers on three occasions. These schemes had one thing in common - the officers had their own agendas and they clearly had not talked to their councillors.

One of these schemes was 'the Octopus', a big office block next to the A4 in Chiswick that will carry giant advertising on its side. Virtually no local residents opposed it and we managed to identify 500 local supporters. Councillors approved the scheme despite the vehemence of their officers.

Another was a large food store, where we politely pointed out to councillors that officers weren't following their own policy.

Of course, we're not alone in doing what we do. The planning industry is dominated by people helping others to influence a decision, to lobby councillors to get a desired result. There are 30,000 architects and nearly as many planning consultants in the UK who lobby on behalf of third-party clients, most of whom would have to be included in the proposed Statutory Register of Lobbyists if the Government decided to include local authorities within its scope.

Transparency and ethics isn't an issue with us, because we do it as a matter of course. We've put in place our own rigorous code of conduct, and transparency and good conduct is paramount to our business.

The pace of the development industry means we have to deliver results every week for our clients. We wouldn't dare consider our results comparable to Barnardo's fantastic achievement with adoption, but we like to think, in our own small way, our results affect thousands of people positively, too.

Richard Patient is managing director at Indigo Public Affairs.


Fast-forward to 2017. Which MPs will be setting parliamentary agendas? Which celebrities will be setting media agendas?

I'm not sure you have to go as far 2017. What about 2012? We've just elected Boris Johnson as the Mayor of London again, we'll be putting more directly elected mayors into our major cities, and a whole new set of people - elected police chiefs - will come on to the scene this autumn. These are the people who will be setting the political and media agendas, not the ever-more lowly MPs. These people will become celebrities in their own right, certainly in their own cities and possibly beyond.


From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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