Design process manager

Rolfe Judd Planning managing director Keith Hills has steered the growth of a London-based architectural firm by taking a specialist approach to his target area, reports Susanna Gillman.

As a young man Keith Hills was keen to get out and see the world. Before even completing his surveying course he went for an interview to work as a planner on the north Atlantic island of Bermuda.

Wise words from his interviewer persuaded him that finishing his qualification and getting more experience under his belt would serve him better in the long run. Doug Nicholson, who had been Bermuda's chief planner, invited Hills to come and work with him at a small London architectural practice looking to expand its planning expertise.

Hills, who had gone straight into local government as a trainee planner from school aged 17, jumped at the chance to work in the private sector. "I liked the idea of working in a wide range of areas with different local authorities and people. You feel that you are part of making things happen," he says. Now, 35 years later, he is managing director of Rolfe Judd Planning, which operates alongside Rolfe Judd's architectural business.

The practice evolved as architects found planning becoming more complex with growing public interest in the process. It soon became a service that gave the business an extra edge. "Rolfe Judd developed a reputation as an architectural firm that was good at planning. Clients liked the idea that we could do both, which was novel at the time," Hills recalls.

During the recession of the late 1980s, the firm realised that further growth was the best guarantee of survival. "We had turned away planning instructions to work with other architects," says Hills. "But we decided that we had to grow the business and set up the planning arm. In the event we didn't lose any architectural work, which had been our fear, but gained planning work."

This side of the business became a boom area, expanding from about ten per cent of work being related to external architectural projects to 80 per cent now. The team has grown to 16 planners but Hills says it has sought to retain a niche focused on London and the Home Counties. "The advantage lies in having specialist knowledge rather than trying to cover everything," he adds.

This is borne out in the firm's good relationships with London boroughs. "We know the central ones best. We do a significant amount of work in Westminster, Southwark and the City," Hills explains. Key projects include Berkeley Homes' Tabard Square in Southwark, jointly planned and designed by Rolfe Judd, which won a Housing Design Award last year. The firm is also working on Berkeley's Wellesley Square scheme in Croydon, which includes a 44-storey tower, and the renewal of Hackney's Woodberry Down estate.

Advising on 100 per cent affordable housing schemes has also become a specialism, working with firms such as Kitewood Estates and Pocket Homes. Many schemes have gone to appeal, even in Labour-controlled boroughs. "When you are confronted with resistance you wonder who is reading the policies," Hills laments. "They are good-quality schemes."

The planning process is far from simple, he reports. "Gone are the days when you put your application in an envelope. Now you pretty much have to put it on a truck," he says wryly. "We have to work harder to get schemes off the ground but that reflects the importance that people now place on the environment."

Hills hopes that the latest government-commissioned review by former Barratt Homes boss David Pretty and Essex County Council chief executive Joanna Killian will provide a better solution. Like many in the private sector, he is critical of the target culture imposed on councils, which pushes some into refusing applications to meet performance figures and secure grant funding. "It has led to authorities playing it by the book, which has meant consents going out of the window," he says.

He explains how the renewal of planning permission for a scheme that attracted no objections was thrown out because the client could not deliver all the signatures from four property interests in time. He suggests that the UK should adopt a system more like New Zealand's, where the parties stop the clock if an issue needs to be resolved.

Despite his role as managing director, Hills likes to be involved in project work. However, he is aware of striking the right balance so staff can gather experience and progress: "We aim to be hands-on from the client's point of view but hands-off from the staff's perspective."

Do all these years working in the capital leave him hankering for Bermuda? "I have no regrets about not going abroad," he says. Having worked in London all his life, he feels part of the place. "I don't have to go far before I come across a building that I have been involved in over the past 30 years. It brings the streets to life in a personal way," he reflects.

Age: 52
Family: Three children
Education: Surveying qualification, Erith College of Technology
Interests: Fly fishing
1986: Managing director, Rolfe Judd Planning
1977: Planning officer, Rolfe Judd
1976: Planning officer, Westminster City Council
1973: Trainee planner, City of London Corporation

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