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Planners vs developers: Partners or adversaries?


How deep are the differences between developers and planners? There is much more that binds than divides, argue the British Property Federation's Ghislaine Halpenny. The Planning Advisory Service's Alice Lester, meanwhile, has a recipe for working better together.

Ghislaine Halpenny: Placemaking means we have to talk the same language

Ask any group of real estate professionals to discuss the barriers to development and one that will almost certainly produce nods of agreement and groans of recognition is “planning”. The perceived antagonism between developers and planners is made much of by both public and private sectors and, in many cases, by politicians too. The latter have been known to tweak and prod at the planning system incessantly in the hope that the system itself will somehow produce more development.

There are customary complaints about council planners taking too long, disproportionate mounds of paperwork being requested, and seemingly endless conversations about rare species of bats and newts that have a tendency to inhabit future development sites. If that discussion is then taken a step further, and the developers in the room are asked whether this is always the case, it becomes clear that it isn’t.

Relationships between developer and local authority planners do not have to be fractious and when push comes to shove, all parties agree that a planning system that stops bad decisions being made yields better results.

How have we got to the stage at which it is widely perceived that the relationship has broken down? As with all relationships, communication is key. It is vital that each party speaks the same language, and that not only they are able to communicate, but that they are willing to. Until this happens, it is stalemate.

But both public and private sectors have the same aims. Developers are driven by the goals of improving and changing people’s jobs, homes and leisure time; local authority planners by the very same.

"When push comes to shove, all parties agree that a planning system that stops bad decisions being made yields better results"

From a developer’s perspective, this of course makes sense. By improving the wider environment for communities, the long-term financial returns for the developer are similarly improved. The same applies to the local authority, which not only gains the immediate benefits for public realm and infrastructure, but also the long-term increase in business rates revenue.

This broader approach to development can be considered to be “place-making”, the buzzword that inspires the development industry. Placemaking is really the product of a good marriage between local authority and private sector. That is when successful regeneration is born, when language barriers are broken down and the original aims and intentions of each have come to the fore – much more productive than point-scoring and paperwork.

Ghislaine Halpenny is director of communications at the British Property Federation

Alice Lester: A recipe for better development

Planners and developers: partners or adversaries? Both, of course. But from our work at PAS with English planning authorities we’ve seen an increasing commitment from planners to be constructive. Officers and councillors recognise that to get the best for their communities they need to have a productive relationship with those investing in their places.

In fact, substitute the word ‘applicant’ (or developer) for ‘investor’, and it changes your mindset. It’s not all easy and there will be disagreements, over viability and contributions to affordable housing or infrastructure, but a constructive relationship focused on meeting the needs of the authority and developer makes for a greater chance of success.

"With clear policies in the plan, appropriate proposals can be brought forward more quickly, and meet fewer obstacles"

Here are my tips for constructive working between planners and developers.

  • Understand, and set out early, what is wanted from the development. As far as possible, understand “red line” areas and where there is scope for change. 
  • Talk early, talk often. Early engagement between councils, developers and communities while local plans are being developed is the best time to set the direction and scale of development. With clear policies in the plan, appropriate proposals can be brought forward more quickly, and meet fewer obstacles.
  • Pre-application discussions. Discussions between interested parties, including councillors, help shape better quality developments and make them more likely to receive support. Active involvement of communities and councillors provides opportunity to inform the community, as well as seeking views on local needs. Planning performance agreements can help set out what happens, when and why.
  • Commitment. Work together to make implementation happen. For the council, that might mean helping with site assembly, using CPO powers, investing in infrastructure or preparing a local development order. Incentivise development by creating confidence and certainty. Think hard about the need for conditions; integrate considerations for non-planning consents and ensure developer contributions are agreed.
  • Look to elected members for leadership. Councillors, whose job is to voice the aspirations for their area, are central to successful partnership working. Early discussion and engagement helps to shape schemes, provide a steer on what is likely to be acceptable to the community, resolve problems and raise extra opportunities.
  • Don’t forget the applicant as customer. Provide a service they want.

Alice Lester is programme manager for the Planning Advisory Service



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