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Crossing the divide: An interview with Louise Brooke-Smith

Words: Mark Smulian
Louise Brooke-Smith

Louise Brooke-Smith was the first female president of RICS. But breaking new ground is nothing new for a planner surveyor whose career has taken her from Congleton to the Congo and beyond, as Mark Smulian discovers

Look on Google Maps and, if one is sufficiently expert in the geography of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one can still see the first surveying project that Louise Brooke-Smith led.

Almost 30 years later, that early experience in Africa was the driver of one of her main themes as president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

As president in 2014-15, she helped to drive the wider adoption of professional ethics and land registration reform in Africa. But in 1985, going to work in DR Congo, then known as Zaire, was an unusual experience for a surveying student spending her placement year with Coventry City Council.

“It was right place, right time, right conversation that took me to Zaire – the story of my life,” Brooke-Smith recalls.

She found herself working at an American Baptist mission near Kwilu, helping to build houses for a medical complex that served an area the size of Wales. “I went there to introduce what we now call sustainable development, using fibrous cement construction of houses. I loved it; the houses are still there and you can Google them.”

After some work as a field officer on rural development projects for a Quaker organisation near Bhopal in India, Brooke-Smith secured her first job with Birmingham City Council, a city in which she has stayed for most of her career.

Here, too, Africa intervened, in the form of a Commonwealth scholarship to work in Kenya for UN Habitat assessing land rights under colonial, tribal and current Kenyan laws. She went on to do similar work in Uganda and Tanzania.

Years later, these experiences were to guide much of her work as RICS president, when her duties took her the equivalent of eight times round the world.

Back home, she gained her additional planning qualification in 1989.

“Planners should know more about viability. It’s a combination of planners becoming more commercially minded and developers having respect and support for planning policy”

“My background is very much planning and land use economics,” explains Brooke-Smith. “That’s what I studied in my first degree at Sheffield – applied geography, you could call it – and I got interested in viability and the development industry. My role has always been about putting policy into practice.”

Her work at Birmingham was as “a hybrid between planner and estates officer in economic development. Because of my overseas experience I was not treated as a straight graduate.”

But soon after returning from Kenya, she felt it was time for some private sector experience and went to property firm DTZ, now Cushman & Wakefield, as a regional planner.

Even here, the planning surveyor was drawn back to the continent that has drawn her again and again – this time with work on land rights in Botswana. There was further overseas work in 1992-93 when, newly married, she and her husband travelled in the Far East, South Asia, Australasia, and America, where she gave lectures on the British planning system.

Returning from her world tour to a UK just recovering from the early 1990s recession, Brooke-Smith worked for a year for house builder Bryant Homes, a post she enjoyed but in which she found little further scope. In 1994 “I made my mind up I wanted to set up my own consultancy and from day one I have been lucky as we’ve always had work coming through the door”.

After more than two decades in business, the Birmingham-based Brooke Smith Planning practice now employs 10 professional staff.

Building bridges

Brooke-Smith’s background puts her at the junction of planning and development, and from her vantage point she concludes neither profession understands the other as well as it might, causing avoidable problems.

Narrowing this divide was among the things she tried to do as RICS president and hopes to continue. But where does the problem lie?

“Planners should know more about viability,” she says. “I think it’s a combination of planners becoming more commercially minded and developers having respect and support for planning policy and guidance.

“There has to be change on both sides,” she continues. “The commercial person has to recognise the need for a set of guidance or regulations, and the people who administer those need an understanding of the commercial aspects of the industry they are working in.

“Planning is badly resourced at the moment, but there is also an unfortunate gap in knowledge between the two sides. If there were more understanding we would have a better system.”

She thinks planners’ training and continuing professional development should include “a much better grasp of the economics of viability and what makes the development industry tick”.

“It is something that has to change and there has to be buy-in from the development industry of the need for planning regulations and policy, and the planning fraternity in the public sector have to want to understand how the development industry works.

“Change is needed both ways or you get inconsistency in the way regulations are followed through in different places, and a lot of consents sitting there because obligations do not make sense any more and they need to be revisited.”

"I made my mind up I wanted to set up my own consultancy and from day one I have been lucky as we’ve always had work coming through the door"

While Brooke-Smith built up her practice, she also rose through the ranks of RICS and was elected vice-president at the outset of the five-year run-up to the presidency.

“I did not set out to be the first female president and I was adamant telling people ‘please do not vote for me because I’m wearing a skirt’,” she says.

“Work on diversity grew and grew to the point where we last year launched the inclusive employer quality mark across the built environment professions.

“Any firm involved can get it, and a lot see the benefit of attracting, training and promoting a diverse workforce.”

She says the industry is grasping that its workforce “cannot continue to be ‘male, pale and stale’ as so many studies show that is not the best make-up for business.

“The reason that things are going quicker now is down to pure commerce, as there is a clear business case for having a diverse workforce that brings different experiences to their work.”

Beyond planning

Throughout our interview, Louise made frequent reference to overseas work connected with her faith. We also discovered that she's a keen athlete and competes in field events at masters level. We asked her how both her faith and her sport inform her work, if at all.

"I don’t tend to make a big deal about my Quaker links as I find that some people have a preconception and assume I live on porridge and drive around in a horse and cart!," she told us. "It actually relates to a philosophy and collaborative attitude that I do try to adopt in my working life but sometimes it can be extremely tricky. It’s particularly frustrating in the world of planning where some tend to follow a dogmatic and unrealistic approach to development and fail to see the bigger picture.
"Similarly with respect to my sport, when I casually mention being a member of Birchfield Harriers’ Masters Team throwing the discuss and hammer, there is a misunderstanding that you are incredibly fit. I can assure you that I have never been very fit but my height means that I have a reasonable technique. When I was younger, this meant I threw for the County and then went for the All England trials. I got back into when my daughter joined Birchfield and the Club needed some senior throwers. I offered to make up the numbers. Competitions are just good fun and a bit different from an hour in a gym."

The case for ethics

As president, Brooke-Smith’s African work focused on RICS’s strategy for sub-Saharan Africa to open more offices to serve its members there, and to advise widely on the professionalism and ethics of being a chartered surveyor.
Ghana, Kenya and South Africa were chosen as the main places for this work, along with a second tier of Nigeria and Tanzania.

“Those countries are keen for more RICS presence and there is a real appetite due to the amount of real estate investment and infrastructure going in, which governments want to make work,” she says.

Ethics is critical to her approach to developing the land-based professions. RICS is working with other international bodies on developing ethical standards, something Brooke-Smith says professionals welcome in Africa and elsewhere.

“Professionalism is worth its weight in gold. It’s not colonial Brits coming in and imposing ethical behaviour, it’s an increasing number of professional organisations, industry and governments wanting bodies to share their experience.”

“There is a clear business case for having a diverse workforce that brings different experiences to their work”

Ethics is rarely an issue in the UK, she notes, as the prevalence of institutions means “being a professional means you work to certain ethical standards, and that ethical approach is an exportable quality and lots of parts of the world value it”.

Another aspect of international collaboration that started under Brooke-Smith’s presidency concerns the slightly arcane subject of how one measures the size of a building.

“Measurement sounds straightforward, but in the Middle East you would measure the carpet area, in Spain the potential to add another floor, in New York from the nose of a gargoyle to the central pillars, it is so varied and needs to be standardised, as when people are investing millions around the world they need to be sure they are comparing apples with apples,” says Brooke-Smith.

Similar work is in progress on international land registration standards, where a coalition of international, regional, and national land professional bodies seeks to develop these.

“Land registration is one of biggest problems across sub-Saharan Africa as it does exist but is not always in an electronic form, and where it is up to date and regulated, then it makes an incredible difference to investment,” she says.

“Kenya is updating its register and that will make a massive difference. In fact, the work I did on land rights all those years ago is now coming home to roost.

“It will change the use of international aid, because if you can establish who owns what things will be more visible. Where things are not clear the real estate industry has great difficulty.”

Her presidency over, Brooke-Smith’s main interest outside her business will focus on serving as chair of trustees of the charity All We Can, originally the Methodist church’s overseas aid agency. There, she will pursue a long-standing interest in planning for disaster resilience – “advice on building regulations and planning for disasters where you know something is bound to happen, and then building back better afterwards”.

Never one to do things casually, she is also a keen athlete, competing at masters’ level in the shot-put, hammer and discus for Birchfield Harriers (see 'Beyond Planning', above).

Building bridges between planning and surveying, crossing the divide between Birmingham and Africa, driving for greater diversity and ethical practice in property, testing her athleticism – Louise Brooke-Smith will continue to be very busy for a long while to come.



Louise Brooke-SmithLouise Brooke-Smith FRICS, MRTPI

1984 Estates officer, Coventry City Council

1985 Field officer in India and development surveyor in Zaire

1987 Development surveyor, Birmingham City Council

1988-89 Seconded to UN Habitat land rights programme in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania

1989 Senior planning surveyor, DTZ

1992 Lectured in planning in Far East, Australia and the US

1993 Regional planner, Bryant Homes Central

1994 Chief executive, Brooke Smith Planning

2014-15 President, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors