Consultancy Survey - Optimistic economist

Chris Tunnell believes in viewing the big picture whether it be confronting global recession, developing eco-towns or advising central government on policy, discovers Susanna Gillman.

It helps to think long term and globally in the face of a recession, says Arup director of planning Chris Tunnell, as he considers how his team is faring in the current downturn.

The company, renowned for its work on high-level government policy and steering large developments, is not feeling the effects of the slowing market as yet. "That's not to say we won't feel them further down the line," acknowledges Tunnell. "But a lot of our emphasis is on the public sector and infrastructure - major projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink and the Olympics."

Work on new communities such as the prototype eco-settlement at Northstowe near Cambridge is also helping to keep the firm thriving. "We've been working for about ten years on the masterplan. These schemes are such long-term projects that although they may slow down in the short term they will eventually go ahead," he explains.

Shielded from the more immediate effects of the credit crunch, Tunnell is looking to large-scale global projects for the future. When we meet at Arup's central London office, he has just returned from a flying visit to Mumbai. This was no sightseeing jolly. Tunnell has been brainstorming on a project to upgrade a chunk of the south of the city where around 100,000 people live. "It is an area at significant risk of flood, so we are looking at climate change mitigation and land adaptation," he says.

It is this type of project that Tunnell hopes will be a big area of business growth for Arup, especially with the pressing climate change agenda. If the credit crunch does hit the company's UK work, he says he will look to give staff more opportunities abroad. "There is such a growing market in India and China, where we have been working on the Dongtan eco-city. There is a real focus on delivery in Asia."

As an economist and planner, Tunnell has focused on combining those skills. He provided the economic evidence for revisions to the London Plan to tackle climate change and is now looking to develop propositions to retrofit whole cities.

He has also been advising the government on eco-towns, including Weston Otmoor in Oxfordshire. He admits that some of the schemes are not up to scratch. He claims that it has almost been an article of faith that employment would follow homes. But he is open to the concept of new settlements. The firm has just been appointed by the East of England Regional Assembly to look for locations for around 20,000 homes.

Tunnell's enthusiasm for planning was ignited during the first year of his economics degree when Sir Peter Hall visited the University of Reading. "His lectures were chaotic but always interesting. I don't think that we appreciated that we were in the presence of greatness," he laughs.

After his postgraduate course, he went straight to work for Arup and has been there ever since, apart from a two-year stint with the London Planning Advisory Committee. He now leads a team of 82 planners and a wider division spanning planning, policy and economics.

As well as flagship projects, he has been carving out Arup's position as one of the leaders on central government policy work. It may be the "less glamorous stuff", but he believes that it is just as important. His most recent advice on revisions to PPS12 and the Killian-Pretty review will help shape future planning policy.

Tunnell is unlikely to be too far away from advising on forthcoming national policy statements, having been involved in the 2003 aviation white paper. He appreciates working for a company that has a highly ethical streak. Being employee-owned, Arup does not have to answer to shareholders and will turn work away to ensure its integrity.

Aside from international work, he is proud to be a UK planner and is a strong RTPI supporter. He insists that his staff secure RTPI qualifications. Arup's achievements were recognised earlier this year when it won the institute's Planning Consultancy of the Year award. Naturally, this was a proud moment, but it has also had a direct benefit for the business too.

"Since winning, we have received more than 300 applications from graduates for jobs and employed nine. They are among the best-qualified planners we have ever been able to attract. The award solved our problem of attracting the right staff overnight," he declares.

Despite the glut of issues facing planners in a global context, he is upbeat. "Planning is often about compromise, but you try to get the best outcomes. It's challenging work, but we make a difference and I can sleep at night."


Age: 41

Family: Partner

Education: Masters in economics, University of Reading; postgraduate planning degree, University College London

Interests: Historic buildings, Italy, opera, DIY, cooking

1996: Associate rising to director of planning, policy and economics, Arup

1994: Planning adviser, London Planning Advisory Committee

1990: Graduate planner, Arup.

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