Captain of consulting

A painfully slow planning process and wide distrust of its practitioners emerge from a survey that shows society is largely opposed to new development, Nick Keable tells Vivien Wilson.

"Whichever way you look at it, the UK is a pretty nimby society," says Saint Consulting Group managing director Nick Keable. He has the figures to back this view, in the form of the second annual Saint UK index into public opinion on the politics of planning and development.

According to the survey (Planning, 16 March, p3), 83 per cent of UK residents do not really want any more development in their area and 16 per cent have actively campaigned against it, with landfill sites, power plants and quarries being the most frequent bones of contention. In contrast, only seven per cent have actually stood up to campaign in favour of development schemes.

Some results are surprising. Fifty-one per cent want more roads. "They are fed up with congestion," Keable infers. "However, 25 per cent of people loathe new offices. Who would have thought that? You would have thought that offices equal jobs. They are clean, they are not noisy and they are not disturbing. Of all the results from the survey, this is the one that I find the most perplexing."

The results also reveal a widely held public perception that developers get an easy ride through the planning process. Almost 60 per cent believe that councils and developers have too close a relationship.

Councillors urged to wise up

"People think that councils are too good to developers," says Keable. "If you asked developers, they would say they are under attack from councils. So that is fascinating."

Many people are also negative about their council's performance on planning, a particularly pertinent point in the run-up to the local elections. Seventy per cent believe that a candidate's position on development is important or very important in deciding how they cast their vote. "Councillors should be worried," Keable warns. And he should know, having once been an elected councillor sitting on a planning committee.

Yet he is surprised to find how much importance people attach to councillors' views on planning issues. "If I were a council candidate in the May election I would be thinking: 'What am I saying on the big development issues in my area? What is my performance on planning? Perhaps I need to pay more attention to what I'm doing there, rather than worrying so much about giving a vote of thanks to our sister town in Ghana or providing a new bench in the town centre.'"

To address the poor perception of planning, Keable calls for a massive increase in the number of planning officers to reverse the drain of talent from planning consultancy. He also wants to ensure that every single planning committee member understands the planning process and their own local development framework. "Planning committees lack knowledge," he complains.

"Up and down the country, we see some really dozy decisions made against officers' advice or for political reasons. It should be mandatory for every councillor who sits on a planning committee to go on a basic planning course to give them an understanding of what the system is about. I once sat on a planning committee of about 15, and there were only three of us who understood the system and had actually read the unitary development plan. Everyone else just made up the numbers."

The Saint survey revealed some widely disparate views. While 58 per cent believe that green belt development restrictions should stay, 38 per cent think that they should be rolled back for development. Keable puts this down to pragmatism, with the need for new homes becoming ever more apparent, while despite the government's consistent line on out-of-town retail people are fairly evenly divided about the issue.

Just as companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and IKEA are changing their business models because of PPS6, public reaction is mixed. "People quite like shopping at the IKEA on the bypass," says Keable. "They want to drive there, load up the car and drive home. It is what they do at weekends and on bank holidays. So while the government feels it has a great policy, it might not be as popular as it thinks."

He speculates that in the future the UK will see more activism, more frustration on the part of developers, more burdens on local authorities and more red tape. "The public sector has to look at what it is doing and it has to do it a different way. There is no doubt that a slothful planning process is a brake on the growth of the UK economy," he concludes.


Age 40
Family Married, no children
Education Royal Military Academy, 1986; executive programme, Harvard
University, 2006
Interests Almost anything with a motor, especially Harley Davidsons
2005 Vice-president, UK operations, Saint Consulting Group
1999 Managing director, PPS
1998 Councillor, London Borough of Croydon
1997 Director, PPS
1994 Account director, Access
1986 Captain in Grenadier Guards

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