Urban award winner

Newham planning chief Vivienne Ramsey is enjoying a key role in turning round the fortunes of one of the country's most deprived urban areas, Christina Papas finds.

Until recently, West Ham United Football Club was the London Borough of Newham's most recognisable feature to the outside world. But over the next few years the vast developments mapped out for the area as part of the Olympic Games preparations and the Thames Gateway initiative should see its reputation as the country's 11th most deprived district evaporate.

Helping to deliver this promising future is Vivienne Ramsey, head of development and building control at the east London authority and winner of the best public sector planner category in the 2005 London Planning Awards (Planning, 9 December, p1). Ramsey accepts that Newham had effectively fallen off the map back in the 1980s. "There was no real perception that it was somewhere you could develop and do business in," she recalls.

But now the borough is being reshaped by the pace of development and interest generated by the successful 2012 Olympic bid and its pivotal position in the gateway. Local planners have gratefully seized the opportunity to take advantage of underused and vacant sites in Stratford, the Lower Lea Valley, the Royal Docks and Beckton. Ramsey is striving to bring homes and employment opportunities to Newham and is making a significant contribution to the Olympic planning exercise.

She clearly revels in her role in this transformation. Since joining the authority 26 years ago, she has never looked back. "Newham turned out to be so interesting and fun," she maintains. "Even when I thought: 'Okay, I've done that now,' something else would come along."

Ramsey has established a major sites team responsible for all opportunity areas in the borough and a housing strategy team to discuss various sites and debate policy issues. For the largest proposals she has created development teams that draw together representatives from the council's various disciplines, as well as from the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, the Housing Corporation and various sectors of the development industry.

Meanwhile, a corporate officer group meets regularly to review progress on all major sites. Even though she can no longer take a hands-on role in every planning application her team of 60 receives, Ramsey happily takes a personal lead on the biggest schemes.

She is working hard to ensure that the land assembly issues surrounding the Olympic development at Stratford are resolved and urges the Olympic Delivery Authority to do more than the bare minimum to ensure that the "greatest show on earth" is not hosted at the expense of local livelihoods.

"It is about reaching an agreement and helping people to relocate," she insists. "I hope that during the run-up to the compulsory purchase inquiry next spring a lot of sites will be resolved."

Ramsey also leads the Newham teams working on key areas in the Thames Gateway project. Her remit includes supervising the legal agreements that underpin these schemes and ensuring that all parts of the council, the community and outside partners are involved. She believes that the Thames Gateway project can be delivered through mutual co-operation. "There has to be agreement on which things are funded first," she contends.

If all goes to plan in Newham's section of the gateway, the £125 million Stratford City project will offer a shopping centre of similar size to Bluewater, almost 5,000 homes and more than 30,000 jobs. In the Royal Docks, the Silvertown Quays development will include an aquarium, 5,000 homes, shops and schools.

Ramsey emphasises that Newham is determined to avoid the quick-fix "pile 'em high, build 'em cheap" type of development that blighted the borough in the 1960s. She also recognises that the various components of the gateway have distinct characteristics that must not be lost in the rush for renewal.

"It is a series of places that all need different answers. It would be sad if it turned into a homogeneous river of development," she warns.

She is one of the many observers concerned by the excessive number of agencies managing the gateway. "There are too many of them and it is unclear who is doing what. There are also too many who think they are in charge," she reflects. "So many of the stands at last month's Thames Gateway Forum were for organisations operating in the gateway and that was without the community organisations that are operating in partnership."

Juggling Newham's development control workload requires a healthy staff complement and Ramsey is no stranger to London's recruitment problems.

Despite the sea of career opportunities offered in the borough, it is not unusual for Newham to receive just a handful of applications for each post advertised.

The downturn in the number of people choosing planning as a career during the 1980s and 1990s will take time to rectify, she agrees. "Planning is not perceived as a profession for which anyone has any respect, especially the media," she laments. Yet she also thinks that recruitment on the regeneration side of planning has risen because it is "far more sexy".

As in many other boroughs, Newham's reliance on temporary staff often leads to a lack of continuity. To help deal with this, Ramsey has set up a scheme whereby former Antipodean employees can recommend likely candidates to be taken on directly as consultants rather than through agencies. In addition, she has introduced mentoring and a system that measures performance, training and attendance as part of the drive to retain staff.

The effectiveness of these efforts can be gauged from Newham's success in meeting all of its Best Value targets for major, minor and other applications over the past two years, helping it to win significant planning delivery grant sums. "We have the largest grant settlement in the country," she says. "That has allowed us to implement our information technology system and capture the planning history of around 60,000 records since 1947. We can also provide online information."

With so many initiatives under her belt, Ramsey will be a popular award winner. "People are rarely nominated as individuals and it is also nice to be recognised as a woman," she confides. "I feel this is recognition of the work that I have done in Newham and of the amount of activity going on in Newham."

She is convinced that current projects will provide a major boost to the borough. "It is a very deprived area and quite a young community, so I want the Olympics to get people excited. I want them to be part of it and to achieve their own personal best in the process. I feel flattered to be playing a part in realising what will be a huge success."

CAREER DETAILS

Age: 52; Family: Lives with partner and two children.

Education: BA in geography, University of Hull, 1974; diploma in town planning, Polytechnic of Central London, 1982.

Career: Planning assistant, Birmingham City Council, 1974-75; planning assistant, Northern Regional Planning Office, Ndola, Zambia, 1976-78; planning assistant rising to head of development and building control, London Borough of Newham, 1979 to date.

Interests: Cooking, reading, miniatures, wine and good food.


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