Development enthusiast

Indigo Planning chairman Simon Neate fears that the localism agenda will slow house building and lead to variable outcomes for different social groups.

Simon Neate
Simon Neate

After starting working life without a formal planning qualification, Simon Neate has come a long way in the sector.

The chairman of Indigo Planning, based in south-west London, has 30 years of professional experience covering large-scale retail projects, business parks, infrastructure, environmental impact assessment and regional economic development.

Neate's involvement started in the early 1980s, following up a long-standing interest in the decline of rural communities. "I was interested in how small towns and villages are constructed and how people make a living in them," he explains.

"It's not something I particularly focus on now. But when you're doing O levels and A levels you're keen on a subject but don't know exactly how to tackle it as a profession."

He took a degree in development studies before starting out as a freelance researcher investigating social and economic issues. After a year he moved to Graham Moss Associates, where he worked as a consultant and then a principal. In 1986, GMA Planning was formed as a spin-off from the main company.

Neate was one of the three directors who established the planning offshoot, later taking on the role of managing director. Meanwhile, the parent firm evolved into GMA Architecture. "Although we know each other, formally we are two separate companies," he explains. The planning consultancy was rebranded in 2004 as Indigo Planning, where he is now executive chairman.

The firm has branches in Leeds, Manchester and Mayfair and a head office in leafy Wimbledon. "We have nice offices at a fraction of the price of central London. Historically we have always been based out of town in places such as Richmond-upon-Thames and Twickenham," Neate recalls.

He explains how the practice arrived at its name change. "We employed brand consultants," he says. "We wanted something that was natural, contemporary, short and memorable."

Neate became an RTPI member in 1990 after showing ten years' of relevant and full-time experience. His career highlights include the development of the Crossley Retail Park in Kidderminster for Inoco, the Conwy Road Retail Park in Llandudno for Taylor Woodrow, Penzance Harbour for Penwith District Council and the Dibden Bay container terminal for Southampton City Council.

He recognises that planning consultants are currently working in turbulent times. The government's localism measures have already seen regional spatial strategies (RSSs) disappear and further radical measures such as a community right to build mooted. On localism, he fears that the measures will favour people who shout the loudest.

"My concern is that the system will work best for those who are good at it and who know the system. The voices of people who need it most will be drowned out," he warns. "I'm convinced we will see fewer houses built. I'm waiting to hear the government come out and say that we don't need as many homes as we thought. It might also claim that because of its new family coherence policies, there will be less need for housing."

He certainly anticipates some difficulties with the removal of RSSs. "You could say that all RSSs did was document and provide a final expression of housing need.

"Local development frameworks will still have to pass a test of soundness based on evidence. Looking back, the planning system we had was not perfect, but it had evolved into doing the job."

Outside the business, Neate keeps busy with memberships of other organisations. He has been a member of the Institute of Directors since 1995 and is on the property and construction committee of the London Chamber of Commerce. Away from the office, he likes to play tennis: "I'm keen, but not that good."

He cites travel as a pleasure, while acknowledging that it is a cliched response from a planner. "Everyone says they like to travel, don't they?" he asks. "To be honest, I really like the City of London. I enjoy the contrast of the big glass buildings and the small alleyways. Edinburgh is a great place to visit too."

As we leave, we discuss one of Indigo's main current projects. The Lydd Airport proposal in Kent, called in by ministers in June, is arguably a test case for the government's attitude towards airport development. But even with the challenge that lies ahead with this particular scheme, Neate retains his enthusiasm. "After 30 years I still enjoy the work. It's thought-provoking," he finds.


Age: 52

Family: Married

Education: Degree in development studies, University of East Anglia

Interests: Tennis, walking, reading

2007: Executive chairman, Indigo Planning

1987: Managing director, GMA Planning

1980: Consultant, Graham Moss Associates

1979: Freelance researcher

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