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Career development: Effective negotiation for planners

A negotiation

From everyday interactions to complex deals, negotiation is a crucial skill. Helen Bird gleans some tips from those in the know and finds out how they can be applied effectively in planning negotiations

Most people talk about getting planning permission in the same way that they describe root canal treatment – painful, unnecessary and the other party seems to take an unnatural delight in the task.
It’s only since working with town planners that I have understood the situation from the other side. Planners are passionate about doing the right thing by communities and making a space that is fair and suitable for all. So why the tension and antagonism in planning negotiations?

Collaborate to accumulate

Gareth Batterbee (pictured below), expert negotiator and training consultant at Kaplan Hawksmere, explains the basic principles for a successful interaction.

Interest vs position

If you want a successful negotiation, you need to operate at the level of interest rather than position. Position is all about the details: “I want this.”
If someone wants something different then there’s going to be a loser in the negotiation.

Interest is at a higher level. “I want a solution that meets my high-level desires, but there might be a number of answers that give me what I want.” With interest negotiation, there is more scope for all parties to come out with a win.

The planner has a set of rules (the position) which are there to ensure that there is a fair system in place, that the character and look of areas is maintained, and so on (the interest). The other party, be they developer or householder, has their own position and interest. Conflicts usually arise when both parties want to retain their position but are unwilling or unable to see that they can get what they want in a different way.

Play the game
The first step in achieving this interest negotiation is to understand the other party.

Ask questions that get to what is really important to them. The next stage is to educate them about why you are objecting to their first position by explaining your interest. You can then work together to explore options that will help both sides to achieve what they need.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect, and sometimes the other party refuses to budge. However, it is important not to take it personally. Although the language they use might be personal, it would be the same for anyone in your position. Keep your emotions in control and treat it as a game, not a matter of life and death.

I often hear town planners saying that develiopers or householders 'cheat' by appealing directly to council members.

My response is simple; if you keep your stakeholders informed of the reasons for your decisions, and you proactively manage them and understand their wishes, then those same members can become your allies.

Don’t complain if someone goes to their democratically elected representative and asks for help – it’s all part of the system.

Just make sure that you’re aligned with your stakeholders as part of your planning.

Negotiation: Top tips

Bearing the following in mind will make your negotiations easier:

1. Take time to listen and understand the interests of the parties involved

2. Explore options that will satisfy the interests of both sides

3. Manage your stakeholders

4. Don’t take it personally.

Three negotiations

1. The LPA negotiation

Simon James, managing director, DLP Consultants

In 2012, and following the withdrawal of an initial planning application for the development of 2.5 ha of land for homes, a resubmission was made to the local planning authority (LPA), Luton Borough Council. This was later refused on five grounds including development, design and air quality.

At this point, DLP was first instructed and appealed the decision. A public local inquiry was held. The inspector dismissed the appeal on detailed design and contribution grounds, but upheld the principle of development. We then opened negotiations with officers on these specific matters.

Our initial task was to analyse the inspector’s conclusions and agree with the LPA those elements of the scheme that were fine and those that required amendment. This gave a framework for the subsequent redesign, which has found favour with officers.

On the matter of contributions following a lengthy and detailed analysis of social infrastructure requirements and the instruction of a viability assessment of the finalised scheme design, we again arrived at agreement with officers on a package that sees a full contribution towards education and waste, and a nil affordable housing requirement given the substantial abnormal costs associated with the scheme.

The application is to be determined shortly and officers now support the proposal as it meets all the inspector’s conclusions and is consistent with policy and addresses an otherwise large shortfall in housing land supply.

2. The Section 106 negotiation

David Hodgetts, Chase & Partners

I recently worked on a section 106 agreement for a scheme in the West Midlands for a significant industrial warehouse development – 18 ha and 600,000+ square feet of new floor space.

In October the committee unanimously voted in favour, but members raised some issues with the proposed section 106 contributions so negotiation was needed. It was imperative that permission was granted as soon as possible, but there were also financial constraints, so the task was to balance those two motives. There was debate as to whether the highways authority should be party to the section 106. Initially the council sought a figure that was considered to be inflated. We advised the client to oppose the increased contributions.

I appraised their reasoned justification for the increase, sub-consultants were instructed to prepared a cost plan for proposed highways improvements and this was submitted to planners for consideration. Similar plans have been submitted to the council in recent years, establishing suitable levels of contributions. In light of this submission, it was felt that if we held our position the level of contributions could have been negotiated down to those proposed originally within the application.

Timing was key, so we advised the client to agree on a figure and so open up the avenue for the section 106, without the local highways authority being a party. Thus we managed to reach an agreed figure quicker than would otherwise have been the case. It incurred slightly greater financial cost, but a cost-benefit analysis would show that, the time saved is in the client’s best interest. Furthermore, the client has several development interests in the area so it was vital to maintain a constructive relationship with the planning authority.

3. The community negotiation

James Fennell, managing director (with Pauline Roberts, senior associate director), Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners

Pre-application is where the negotiation usually starts. NLP recently obtained planning permission for the West London Mental Health Trust for 600 new homes on surplus land at St Bernard’s Hospital in Southall, the proceeds from which will help fund a £60 million improvement programme.

A Planning Performance Agreement provided vital structure to negotiations with the council. The London Borough of Ealing offered its senior officers to provide strategic guidance at critical points in talks; likewise the trust committed senior staff, smoothing the path for technical negotiations after common ground in key areas was established.

This was a complicated scheme involving the conversion of the grade II listed asylum buildings in a poor state of repair, with substantial new build in the hospital grounds. Many stakeholders had to be convened, including the hospital’s service users, residents, English Heritage, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.

The key issue underlying all the negotiations was reconciling heritage and conservation impacts to deliver a viable scheme. Open-book appraisal and good working relationships with the council led to pragmatic discussion and agreement on all the determining issues including density, affordable housing provision and community uses.

Large schemes take a lot of time and effort and building trust with officers and stakeholders is central to successful negotiations.


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