Planners in practice

As Roger Hepher and Peter Dixon celebrate ten years of running their own practice they are confident about the future of planning consultancy, reports David Dewar.

Back in 1995, Roger Hepher and Peter Dixon decided they wanted to move away from a large chartered surveying practice and set up their own planning consultancy. Establishing themselves initially in Milton Keynes, they set up Hepher Dixon and began work on delivering projects.

The firm has not looked back. Hepher and Dixon can point to a portfolio of substantial projects that includes Arsenal Football Club's new stadium in north London, Europe's biggest Asda Wal-Mart based in Milton Keynes, the Vauxhall End redevelopment at the Oval cricket ground in south London and the wholesale regeneration of West Hendon.

Hepher and Dixon both spent some years with JR Eve, the London chartered surveying firm that metamorphosed into part of GVA Grimley, before deciding that they would like to start their own operation. "We were becoming increasingly frustrated with big firm bureaucracy and big firm politics," Hepher admits.

"We were attracted by developing a business focused on planning and regeneration. It is a subject area that interests and excites me and I enjoy being involved in it. In 1995 the dark days of the early 1990s recession were behind us, and we thought the market was going to be reasonably buoyant for some time. It seemed a good time to turn that aspiration into reality."

"The plan was to have a single office based in London, perhaps with 20 people, enough to secure some big projects," says Dixon. "But the trends led to there being more planning and also for clients in various parts of the country wanting to access planning services in their regional centre, wherever that happened to be."

The initial intention was to establish the firm in London, but Milton Keynes was the location for Hepher Dixon's first office. "We both found ourselves living near Milton Keynes, and rather than taking expensive office space in London and paying London secretarial rates we kicked off there," says Hepher. "Also, it is a good central point for getting around the UK."

The plan was to develop a London office and that is exactly what happened.

"London has since grown to be our biggest office," says Hepher. A third branch in Cardiff is now well established, while Dixon took the lead in setting up a Leeds office 18 months ago to consolidate the firm's practice in the north.

The firm now has almost 70 staff, half of whom are chartered town planners, and its planning fee income last year topped £5 million. "We have been very fortunate in two respects," Hepher reflects. "Firstly, we have seen generally buoyant economic conditions throughout the past ten years, and secondly there has been an expansion in the demand for planning consultancy services."

Its founders reckon that Hepher Dixon is now geared up for almost anything the property market can throw its way. Recruiting quality personnel, instilling a positive team spirit and offering staff a wide variety of work are the main tenets of the practice. "We have a very good retention rate," says Dixon. "We do not have a very high staff turnover because people feel they can build a career here."

The firm's main focus is on the delivery end of the system, he believes.

"We are very much project based and our ethos is about delivering planning permissions. We have always been orientated towards that kind of development control, rather than masterplanning or policy planning. We do those things as well, as a means to an end, but the end is normally to deliver planning permissions."

"Our quality standards have been very high over the years," adds Hepher.

"We have been very selective about who we take on board. We put a lot of effort into inducting people and getting people into the firm's culture. One of our great strengths is a tremendous team spirit. People feel that they are part of a well-defined organisation and understand their role in it."

Both founders do their best to avoid becoming too immersed in the management of the set-up. "We enjoy planning work rather than being managers in a bureaucratic organisation," says Dixon. Hepher agrees: "The reality is that our directors are all very much hands-on planners working on projects. The challenge is to create enough time for the management of the practice. We now have 12 directors, so the burden of management can be spread around and we can play to people's strengths."

One of the most significant projects Hepher Dixon has been working on has been Arsenal's relocation from Highbury to a 60,000-seat arena at nearby Ashburton Grove. The scheme is about much more than a new ground for the Gunners, says Hepher. "It is a 20ha regeneration scheme and has grown to involve 2,800 homes, a large amount of business space, retail, leisure and a major waste recycling centre to serve north London."

The project is attempting a wholesale regeneration of the most deprived wards of Islington. "There is a popular misconception that Islington is a prosperous place," says Hepher. "Parts of it are, but other parts are really quite deprived. The area around Holloway Road and Caledonian Road contains some of the most deprived wards in the UK and had not seen any inward investment for years until the Arsenal project came along."

The consultancy has also been assisting Milton Keynes Dons Football Club on its new stadium in Bletchley. This project is also about regeneration of the surrounding area. In commercial terms, it is underpinned by what will become Europe's largest Asda Wal-Mart superstore when it opens later this month. The Milton Keynes office is also carrying out a good deal of work on the South Midlands growth plans.

Hepher and Dixon remain very confident about the firm's position in the market and its future prospects. "I think it is a really exciting time for us," says Hepher. "The market has expanded considerably and even if we encounter an economic downturn, the system has become so much more complex and the need for specialist services so much greater than before. This will sustain our business."

He adds: "Also, we are in an excellent position to make the most of those favourable market conditions. We have been going for ten years, we are well known and we have a good reputation. Almost all of our work comes by way of repeat business from clients or recommendations, which is the tangible evidence that our reputation is sound."

CAREER DETAILS - Roger Hepher Age: 49 Family: Married with three children Education: BA (Hons) in town and country planning, University of Manchester, 1977; master of town planning, University of Manchester, 1979 Career: Planner and senior planner, Greater Manchester Council, 1979-82; senior planner, GL Hearn & Partners, London, 1982-85; associate, rising to partner, JR Eve, 1985-88; partner, Grimley JR Eve, London, 1988-95; set up Manchester planning team, 1992-95; director, Hepher Dixon, 1995 to date Interests: Boating, cycling, hill walking CAREER DETAILS - Peter Dixon Age: 40 Family: Married with two children Education: MA in land economy and archaeology and anthropology, University of Cambridge Career: Planner, JR Eve, 1985-88; planner rising to associate, Grimley JR Eve, 1988-95; director, Hepher Dixon, 1995 to date Interests: Rugby, tennis, the arts

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