Hands-on strategist

The focus on creating sustainable communities is giving a new impetus to the work of planning consultants, Gareth Capner of Barton Willmore tells Susanna Gillman. Planning runs through the core of Gareth Capner, senior partner at leading independent planning consultancy Barton Willmore. From the age of 18 he has dedicated himself to the profession. "I suppose if you cut me in half you would find planning written inside me," he reflects.

Despite rising to senior management level, Capner retains a hands-on involvement in a wide range of planning projects, from large housing schemes to employment and retail developments. He is often called on as an expert witness at inquiries into new settlements, urban extensions or brownfield regeneration schemes.

Notable current projects from the Barton Willmore stable include the proposed urban extension west of Stevenage and the Home Office's bid to build an asylum centre in Bicester, Oxfordshire. But equally Capner can be out visiting sites for a variety of mixed-use projects and enjoys "getting paid for nosing around these interesting places". He adds: "We get to see things before other people and assess the planning risks and rewards. That's an interesting intellectual exercise."

It is just as well Capner enjoys strategic thinking, given that the early part of his career focused on structure plans. A year's secondment at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in Birmingham, in between his planning training at the University of Sheffield, gave him a taste for spatial planning.

Back in the late 1960s, the first wave of structure plans was being drawn up for the West Midlands conurbation. "It was a similar time and feeling to today, but now structure plans are being dropped in favour of regional spatial strategies," he observes. His move into local authority planning at Kent County Council was inevitable. "In those times planning was almost a wholly public sector activity."

During his time in Kent, Capner researched the county's first structure plan and completed a stint in development control at its Ashford office before joining Berkshire County Council, where he tucked another six years' strategic planning under his belt. But having risen through the local authority ranks, a shift to the private sector became necessary for him to continue the work he enjoyed.

Seeing Barton Willmore in action at an appeal gave him the impetus to ask for a job. He became the first non-architect planner to join the company in 1979. "I felt that local government was a bit constraining, going up the tree and becoming more involved in management and the sort of issues that now surround the sector like Best Value. I wanted to continue planning," he explains.

The eight-office practice has doubled its quota of chartered town planners during the past five years to 80, out of a 220-strong workforce. The practice has grown organically rather than pursuing the takeover route. As senior partner, Capner is responsible for the whole practice. He believes that running the firm as a partnership helps to attract committed young professionals because it gives them a chance to work up to partner level.

Of the 15 partners who own the company, one deals entirely with administrative issues, but the other 14 spend much of their time in planning, design and masterplanning work. "Even though I'm senior partner I spend most of my week working on planning projects. I find planning challenging. Achieving implementable and worthwhile planning permissions gives me a real buzz," says Capner.

"Most people who have worked for me think it is really exciting. Private sector planners can turn outworn areas into something very valuable, but 18-year-olds don't see planning in the same way. They think about regulation and stopping development or dealing with extensions for houses. People here see it as enhancing and positive and we're happy to share that message."

Although he is generally upbeat about the profession, he recognises that without the right skills it can become a frustrating process. Strategic thinking, people skills and attention to detail are key qualities for a planning career, he believes. He is also optimistic about the latest reforms to the system. "They are a breath of fresh air. We're engaging in much more up-front public consultation on all sorts of schemes. It is positive, although it is time-consuming and expensive," he admits.

The complexities of planning are certainly not doing the company any harm. It reaped £13.7 million in planning fee income in 2003-04, almost £2 million up on the previous 12 months. The firm is attracting major projects, including proposals for 11,000 homes at Barking Riverside, the largest regeneration project in London, and the Eastern Quarry scheme in Kent Thamesside. Elsewhere, Barton Willmore is promoting retail opportunities for Waitrose and John Lewis and is at the forefront of planning for a wave of major regional casinos.

With planning and design becoming much more integrated, Barton Willmore remains focused on its strengths in marrying planning and architecture.

"A lot of planning consultancies have got rather undeveloped design arms. Then there are design agencies, which are unaware of the planning process and agenda," says Capner. "We don't do highways and engineering. We do core planning and design and recycle the delivery lessons that we've learned in our next project."

He embraces the government's ambitions for a step change in housing delivery and the updated regional approach to planning. "Anybody who goes and listens to deputy prime minister John Prescott cannot fail to be impressed by his raw enthusiasm," he argues. "For the first time in 30 years, planning decisions have gone upwards strategically. There is a willingness to take a strategic view and to not just be concerned with nimbyism."

But while Prescott is pushing for development across the four growth areas, Capner believes that the economic potential of the Thames Valley is being overlooked. "It was a growth area in the 1970s and 1980s and it is the economic powerhouse of the South East. But it is being strangled by a lack of housing and huge levels of incommuting and congestion," he complains, hoping that these will be redressed in the South East Plan.

With the government's agenda for creating sustainable communities, there is more than enough work for firms like Barton Willmore. Capner relishes the challenge: "It is the first time in 15 years that the government has committed itself to a step change in development, infrastructure provision and place-making. We've yet to see results on the ground, but it's a very positive time for planning."

CAREER DETAILS

Age: 57.

Status: Married.

Education: BA in town and regional planning, University of Sheffield,

1968; MA in town and regional planning, University of Sheffield, 1970;

member of British Institute of Management, 1978.

Career details: Secondment at Birmingham office, Ministry of Housing and

Local Government, 1969-70; structure plan researcher, development

control officer, Kent County Council, 1970-73; principal planning

officer, Berkshire County Council, 1973-79; associate rising to senior

partner, Barton Willmore, 1979 to date.

Interests: Squash, boating, shooting.


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