Developers vs democracy

Projects may fall foul of councillors if developers are not made aware of local sentiments

Should planning clients bemoan democracy? Perhaps. Planning clients – those developers seeking to build a wind farm, an energy plant, a big commercial or retail scheme, or a tall tower – certainly bem­oan the uncertainty it creates and the tension that results when they see an elected body overturn the considered view of a bureaucracy.

Unlike the majority of the public affairs industry, those in planning public affairs like us are tested every week, certainly several times a month, on our ability to deliver.

When we monitor other schemes, we regularly see planning committee councillors overturn recommendations from their own council officers. Some councillors see it as a badge of honour to do so. Others just think that their electorate needs consideration and that doing so will help their chan­ces of re-election.

Consider the scene. After two years of hard work, a major mixed-use development has reached the planning committee. Officers are supportive. Coun­cillors enter the room. One of the councillors sees her hairdresser. A conversation ensues, and there is much hand pointing. An hour later, the councillors vote. The scheme falls by one vote – the vote of our councillor who saw her hairdresser in the public gallery.
So our delivery for the client becomes a crucial issue.

First, clients should demand to know what the councillors and the community think. It seems obvious, but we have seen countless schemes go to committee where the developer is completely oblivious to this essential need.

Knowledge is power. And so it is not surprising that our clients want us to know what people think about their schemes, and more or less anything that could affect them. And I assure you we obtain this intelligence in keeping with the spirit – and the law – of each council’s code of conduct. Most of it is public anyway, if you look hard enough.

Will councillors be affected by what third parties think? Should we listen to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment? Most of the time, yes. Should we listen to English Heritage? Well, that depends on how councillors in each authority view the body. In Cambridge they probably listen to them quite a lot, in Tower Hamlets, less so.

Should we listen to the local cycle group, the local green group, the local residents’ association and others? If you are building a wind farm, having the support of the green group is a bit obvious, so you can almost discount them (we have seen others make the classic error of placing far too much weight on the support of this type of group). If you are building a tall tower, then the green group’s support might be vital.

We are dealing with many schemes in which the client sets particular constraints – it has to be viable and deliverable, for instance; it has to be a particular height, density or scale. In virtually every instance, despite the client’s initial reluctance, they have recognised that there are almost always opportunities for councillors and the community to change things at the margins, even if it is only the colour of the bricks.
How much better would it be to have at least tried to address the concerns of that hairdresser before she became a vehement objector? Or at least ensured her views were listened to properly and a coherent argument made to defend the scheme against her issue.

Views in brief
How is the recession affecting public affairs?
The recession is affecting everyone – we can’t pretend it isn’t. We’re safe for the duration because we’ve been prudent. But we keep on hearing about competitors who are about to go under. The CVs I receive from people are revealing.

You’ve been given a yacht moored off Corfu but Mandelson, Osborne, Rothschild and Deripaska aren’t available. Who is on your fantasy guest list?
My wife and my daughter. Oh, and Boris too. He is a laugh.Democracy – who would have it? Certainly not some developers who are frustrated by councillors’ views. But I’m afraid we are stuck with it. Just make sure, if you are a client, that you know how to get your scheme delivered.

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