The adventurer returns

Globetrotting planning troubleshooter Paul Nichols is back home and relishing taking the helm at a regional arm of one of the UK's most high-profile consultancy operations, Ben Lee reports.

Weatherman, government housing adviser, chief vet, scourge of the Sicilian mafia - Paul Nichols has been many things to many people. But to himself he is simply a planner.

Nichols's track record reads like a world travel guide, taking in Bermuda, Malta, Dubai, Sudan and Montserrat. His latest adventure is closer to home, however, as director of town planning for London and the South East at multidisciplinary consultancy Capita Symonds.

When I arrive in the reception area at Capita's central London offices to meet Nichols, a photographer's flashlight is already being shoved in his face. It takes 15 minutes to get the right snap to accompany our interview. Waiting on the other side of a glass wall, I notice how at ease he appears to be.

But then Nichols has adapted to the demands of wherever he has found himself. Career highlights include a stint setting up the Maltese planning system and a spell as the States of Jersey's chief officer for planning and environment, overseeing both the island's Met Office and veterinary service.

In the early 1990s, he spent two years at the Ministry of Housing in Sudan, which he describes as "a friendly country tragically destroyed by so many years of fighting". Since then he has put in numerous shifts freelancing around the globe.

"I enjoy setting things up, I suppose, and I have always picked jobs that I feel motivated by," he explains. "You may not sit down and plan it that way, but as your career goes on then it gets easier to achieve."

As the planning industry eases into the 21st century, Nichols has taken full advantage of the opportunities afforded to the more adventurous planner. Never seeing himself exclusively as a public or private-sector employee, he has preferred to put himself about. Successfully exporting the best bits of the UK's planning system, he is now uniquely placed to give an insight into how planning approaches differ around the world.

His last posting outside the UK was in Jersey. "It was a different animal - a true unitary authority where central and local government are rolled into one. It's a real microcosm because you are doing everything. It simplified life in a lot of ways. A lot of time in UK local authorities is spent dealing with neighbouring councils. In Jersey it was just one group of people."

By the time Nichols arrived in Jersey he had mastered the knack of working out how things are done elsewhere. Four years with Halcrow's global development arm and frequent spells as a freelance planning consultant throughout the 1990s certainly saw to that.

One of his proudest moments came in Malta, as part of a consultancy team charged with implementing the island state's first ever land-use planning system as a requirement of its EU membership.

"We had to start from first principles," he explains. "The Maltese hadn't been used to a planning system and people weren't familiar with being told they couldn't build because what they proposed wasn't part of a local plan.

"Getting an enforcement system that worked wasn't easy. We were only 100km from Sicily, remember. It was not a place to easily deliver a tightly controlled regulatory planning system."

The Maltese system is based on the UK planning system, and it was there that Nichols began to acknowledge the career benefits of working overseas. The contractor learns as much as the client, he found. "It's a two-way street," he explains. "Our system is very widely respected, but people do ask you: 'Why do it that way?' You end up questioning if it really is the best way."

He has a warmer appreciation than most for the UK's system, especially for the Planning Inspectorate and development control. "It's hard to beat," he maintains. "It is difficult to come up with something else that is as fair. In other countries there are fewer chances for neighbours to learn about what is going to happen and object to it."

In small communities and in the absence of an evolved planning system, listening to objections and acting on them is of great importance. But take another look at Nichols's CV and another pattern becomes clear. Reconstruction work in Montserrat after the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted in 2000, a masterplanning project in Jamaica in 1998, a coastal development feasibility study in Curacao in 1996 - all are island communities.

"The fact that you know everybody brings a certain way of working," he acknowledges. "You have to be able to maintain relationships." You get the distinct impression that Nichols has succeeded in doing that wherever he has worked, including the UK.

Now content to be back on the mainland, his task will be to lead a Capita Symonds team of 80 UK town planners and build its market presence in London and the South East. It's reasonable to expect that he will set about this latest challenge in much the same way as he always has - without a fuss.

CV

Age: 52

Family: Married with two daughters

Education: BA (Hons) in urban and regional planning, Lanchester Polytechnic; MSc in social statistics, University of Southampton

Interests: Piano, guitar, saxophone

2008: Director of town planning, London and the South East, Capita Symonds

2006: Chief officer for planning and environment, States of Jersey

2002: Head of sustainability and planning, Southampton City Council.


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