Spare a thought for the housebuilder's in-house planner, by Graeme Bell

Nick gulped. The stress of the quarterly review was getting to him. Not that he was a shrinking violet, he regarded himself as a tough cookie, but the worry of having to justify the poor progress of the planning applications was grinding him down.

It had all started so well. Nick had been head of development management in a district before he’d been approached to join the housebuilder. They’d been impressed with his negotiating skills-telling him ‘we need someone like you going in to bat for us’ and he’d been flattered. He was someone who could keep the council policy line, think creatively, be accessible at the end of a phone and answer emails promptly. A positive planner. Hallelujah!

At pre-app meetings he would often join the Case Officer, not to impose but to ensure the advice was sound, consistent and would not chop or change as staff rotated. He didn’t see his job as to be difficult or developers as the enemy, he recognised that new housing was desperately needed in his patch.

And he enjoyed being at the coal face. He had no yearning to climb the greasy pole in the council, to manage the bin men or spend his days in meetings discussing health and safety. While he respected his councillors, he saw some as too clever by half and others not half as clever as they thought themselves to be. He got exasperated with their political games, the deferrals when the gallery had to be appeased and the quiet abandonment of settled policy when it suited.

So when Bloggs Homes came knocking with their promise of an exciting career delivering the housing people needed, the challenge sounded good. The perks were a factor too, let’s be honest. How difficult could it be to navigate the system when he’d been running it from the inside for well over a decade?

How complex to unlock sites where there is no five year supply? He didn’t see council planners as the enemy, rather he saw himself as helping them achieve outcomes that they were struggling to deliver. And how exciting to roam across a region rather than be confined to a small patch where he could recall application numbers of key sites going back years - how sad is that?

Nick had made a good start and his spirits soared. The market was buoyant and his bonus was good. But over the past year, for various reasons, he hadn’t been able to fulfil his targets. The need for 250 plots here and 150 units there kept him awake at night. Feeding the beast became all-consuming. His boss was under pressure too. The main board was roasting him because the delays in delivering approvals meant borrowing facilities were having to be re-negotiated against a background of Brexit and a weakening sales market. It was a perfect storm.

It hit Nick’s self-confidence and he now felt lonely and depressed. Driving 67,000 miles in three years criss-crossing the region, starting at crack of dawn and finishing late at night was taking its toll. Some will say tough, that you have to take the rough with the smooth, and that Nick should have known he might have to sell his soul. But without planners like Nick covering the ground, finding the sites and pushing the rocks uphill to gain consents, where will the housing numbers come from? On a rising market arguably any Dumbo can be a successful developer, but when the tide turns the going gets tough and we should spare a thought for those planners who are trying to make a difference in these increasingly challenging times.

Graeme Bell OBE is a former secretary of the National Planning Forum.


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