Council reality checker

Haringey planning boss Marc Dorfman thrives in local government's political environment but worries that the profession has still not faced up to widening skill gaps, Susanna Gillman finds.

As chief planner at the London Borough of Haringey, Marc Dorfman is grappling with renegotiations on recession-hit schemes, producing a robust local development framework and responding to the urgent need to boost planners' skills.

Yet he is unfazed. "You know that there will be difficulties when you come to a senior management job in planning. What you cannot know is their exact form and shape. So you gird your loins, take a deep breath and try to remember how you got through the last lot," he explains.

Ensuring that complex regeneration schemes such as Haringey Heartlands, Wood Green town centre and Tottenham Hale stay on track is another preoccupation. Luckily, one of the area's biggest renewal opportunities - the redevelopment of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club's White Hart Lane ground - is safer than most, being underpinned by billionaire owner Joe Lewis.

Spurs are seeking to create a 57,000-seater stadium, 22,000 more than its home currently offers, and reverse the 70-30 split between spectators arriving by car and public transport. "The problem is fitting a huge 'cathedral' into a tight urban structure. It is more about whether the design and traffic impact can actually work," Dorfman remarks.

He is sceptical about the claimed success of other sports schemes, including Arsenal's Emirates Stadium down the road in Highbury. "At all the stadiums I have seen, there is hardly any link with local town centres. Supporters arrive, watch the game and then go home," he says.

So Haringey planners are working with the club to stagger fans' arrival and departure to ensure that transport infrastructure is not overloaded. Dorfman's dedication to getting the arrangements right is illustrated by his decision to spend six weekends travelling to the site by different modes of transport and observing what happens in the lead-up to a match and afterwards.

His inspiration for planning started far beyond the capital, where he spent most of his childhood. In between degrees, he took a job in Senegal with a French development organisation. Researching ways of dealing with shanty towns gave him the bug. Back in the UK, he went on to develop his skills on Tony Gibson's Planning for Real programme and as planning aid officer at the Town and Country Planning Association.

While local government politics frightens many planners, it is one of the reasons Dorfman has stayed in the public sector. "People find it frustrating instead of accepting that it is part and parcel of our planning process. I wouldn't be without the cut and thrust of planning committees and helping councillors grapple with decisions. If senior planners recognise that staff need to be trained in political as well as technical processes, we will be better skilled to deal with these pressures," he says.

Among Dorfman's successes to date has been getting London's first core strategy approved in Redbridge last year. At Haringey, he is less concerned with speed and more about ensuring that his team comes up with a document that underpins the community strategy. "I get that from Planning for Real," he reflects.

Despite the impact of the recession, Dorfman's 110-strong department seems to be holding its own. Confusion around changes to permitted development rights has kept application numbers up, although fees are down because there are fewer large schemes. Some posts have been frozen but so far there have been no cuts. The Spurs application, due this month, will help boost income, as will the club's £250,000 fee for pre-application work.

Dorfman is also involved in shaping the national skills agenda through the DCLG project to develop standard skills competencies for planners. He is particularly concerned about the absence of "real learning" in training programmes and cites development economics as one of the most notable skills gaps. "We need to say to staff 'don't worry, relax and let's learn together'," he argues.

The bigger issue for the future is getting planners trained in environmental management and sustainable construction, he maintains. "After 2015 you are not going to get a job in Haringey if you are not a code for sustainable homes or BREEAM assessor," he predicts. "By the end of next year we will have a detailed plan of how many of our staff will be subsidised to do this training."

Dorfman calls on others in the sector to recognise the urgency of the skills problem. "We have to start now," he asserts. "This is not being said by the profession. I hope that this national project will say it so we can get real faster."


Age: 55

Family: Married with a daughter, step-daughter and grandchild

Education: Degree in history and politics, University of Reading; MA in planning, University of Nottingham

Interests: Running, playing football, visiting galleries, theatre, opera

2008: Assistant director of planning and regeneration, London Borough of Haringey

2005: Assistant director of planning and regeneration, London Borough of Redbridge

1990: Director of regeneration and major projects, London Borough of Ealing

1988: Development control officer, London Borough of Camden

1986: Development control officer, London Borough of Southwark

1983: Planning aid officer, Town and Country Planning Association

1981: Research assistant, Planning for Real

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