Does the Planning System work?

In the last twelve months the construction and property industry has gone ‘off the scale’ in terms of activity, particularly in/ around London, but increasingly in the regional cities now also.

During the recession Local Authorities were quick to scale back their Planning department resources. It seems then, and indeed now, that Planning isn’t considered a particularly important component for Councils, perhaps because they don’t generate much (direct) revenue. Some are better than others in terms of performance, but its definitely a lottery as to how you will fare and a costly one at that!

For sometime now I’ve had growing views about the effectiveness of the Planning system.  The people you deal with a often junior and lack experience/ understanding of design and Planning. To broaden my perspective on this issue, I’ve been canvassing opinions from professionals in the industry recently, especially Planning Consultants. A theme emerged which supported my concerns.

In January this year I submitted a minor Planning Application to Derby City Council for some modest alterations to a domestic house. The stated determination period for an application of this nature is 8 weeks. It actually took 23 weeks to receive the decision. Was there a reason for this? No. Did I get a decent explanation as to what had gone wrong? No. Nothing. Not even an apology. In fact before they finally released the decision notice I was asked, in writing, to sign a form accepting an extension of time, before they would issue the notice?! This presumably relates to their performance figures, but what an unbelievable way to operate, especially for a public sector body. The irony here is that the proposed works to the property will take around 10-12 weeks, so how can Planning take twice as long?

For larger applications, probably mostly commercial developments, under the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) it is now a requirement to engage with the Local Authority prior to making a formal application. This makes a lot of sense. The NPPF states; “Early engagement has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system.” The key word in that statement is ‘potential’ because in practice it doesn’t always work. On one Pre-App submission I have been involved with, it took 16 weeks to get a formal response. An  Planning Application should be dealt with in 13 weeks. I think the reality of Pre-App is that it is often used to stall the process, not improve it.

Pre-Application dialogue isn’t (I don’t believe) measured or tracked in terms of performance. Therefore if the department is a bit busy, they can let things drift a bit it terms of responding. Indeed they aren’t actually obligated to respond within any specific timescales?!

So here lies the problem; In a largely private sector led industry of investors, developers, contractors and consultants, you have to work smart and deliver on your commitments. Fail to deliver and you get sacked. Pretty simple.

The Councils however can do what they want really and certainly don’t seem to consider the commercial realities of how investment and development works. In two sectors I’m very close to, Residential and Student Living, programme delivery is critically important. Losing a few weeks/ months in Planning can seriously compromise projects.

It seems that central Government want the investment, jobs and new buildings to stimulate economic growth and enhance/ regenerate communities, but unless the Planning system starts to become more effective and reliable, we will continue to struggle and even fail in some instances.

The construction industry faces many significant challenges at present, these include; material/ labour supply, cost certainty and commitment from Contractors to deliver. However I believe that the Planning system is also a critical issue which must be addressed.

I’ll be sending this blog to Brandon Lewis (Minister of state at DCLG for Housing and Planning) and Greg Clark (Secretary of State for DCLG). I hope to positively engage with them directly to discuss this and explore how things can be improved.

I’d welcome your views on this issue. If you agree with my concerns, please feel free to share this post to raise awareness in the industry.

 

Student Living Design in 2015

Next week I will be speaking again at a national student housing conference in London, hosted by LD Events. My talk is focused on Student Living Design and I’ll be exploring the changing learning and living dynamics for ‘Generation Y’ in University life.

There is no doubt that technology has a huge influence today, in a social context and also in how people learn/ study/ work. The formality of how we use physical spaces has changed significantly as the boundaries between our day-to-day activities have blurred. One of my most productive workplaces is actually on the train to London.

So what’s new in Student Living? The sector has continued to evolve as the competition has increased between existing and lots of new operators in the market place. I suspect a lot of people will still associate student living with basic halls which lacked any real design or identity. The reality is very different now.

Modern student living developments are seeing more architectural quality externally, and much better quality and design focus internally. Generally most new developments seek to align with student aspirations and expectations in their look and operation. The major focus is now on creating an outstanding ‘student experience’.

Living formats range from premium studios, twodios (2 beds with a shared compact kitchen), twin rooms, townhouses and of course the traditional cluster apartment/ bedrooms. The latter is where the demand remains, as this makes up more than 80% of the market, and is generally the most affordable.

A standard bedroom will now typically include; a larger bathroom pod with a defined shower enclosure (no more wet rooms or shower curtains), more storage space, linear desks, a 3/4 sized bed and larger windows. The finishes and colours are much more modern too. Whilst there has been a push for smaller compact room formats, we are also seeing larger rooms emerge as well.

Student Room conceptResistance is growing to address the visual impact of the long institutional corridors which enviably exist in these buildings. They can often be a monotony of identical doors! The use of feature finishes/ colours, recessed doorways, daylighting (where possible), signage and lighting all improve these spaces dramatically. There is also a growing trend towards forming small break-out spaces within the general circulation areas to allow residents to meet, relax and dwell.

Two big areas of operational progress in the sector, which directly impact upon design, is branding and a more hospitality led approach to student living.

Operational reputation is so critical now. It heavily influences investment for new development and is a big decision factor for universities and students alike in the hugely competitive marketplace. Reputation is measured by performance, satisfaction and occupation/ retention levels. All are equally important. If a student takes to Twitter to vent their frustrations about something, the operators have to respond instantly.

Operators now (finally) recognise how important brands are to young people. A number of existing operators have dropped their corporate look to promote a fresher impression which is focussed around lifestyle. Within the buildings, the operational focus is much more aligned to hotels now. The intention is for residents to be treated as customers and communal facilities to promote social interaction and a range of activities.

In some early student living developments I have designed, we would provide common rooms. These would typically include pool tables, vending facilities and seating, but they were rarely used. Why? Because there wasn’t a desire or need to be in that space.

Student HubVITA Student leading by example : Hub space

Now common rooms (now referred to as ‘Hubs’) have large reception spaces, coffee lounges, games/ media rooms, TV/ Cinema lounges, Group study spaces/ private rooms, Private Dining facilities, gym facilities and more. These spaces are aspirational and lifestyle focused. They are there to promote and create a social community.

receptionVITA Student leading by example : Reception

So what else is affecting student living? The boundaries between private residential apartments and purpose built student living continue to blur, especially with the surge in Permitted Development rights for Office to Residential conversions, and also the rapid rise in the Private Rented Sector/ Built to Rent. The latter also focussing heavily on well branded, aspirational, lifestyle managed living for young people. In part PRS is very much about continuing that standard set by Student Living for the next step in life; ‘Graduate Living’. I can see the potential for this emerging as a specific branded offer.

Another influence which is growing is sustainable design. This is led by statutory legislation in the main, but the bar keeps rising and therefore the need for the sector to embrace sustainability is becoming critical and increasingly expensive for developers. It surprises me that nobody seems to have seen the opportunity to create a point of difference here, a bit like M&S and their PlanA initiative.

So the conclusion here is that student living is very much about excellent quality design in 2015 and beyond, both in terms of the architecture and the internal environments. The skill however is in being able to balance design with commercial reality in terms of development/ financial viability. This is where sector experience, in both the design and delivery of student living, becomes so important when selecting an architect.

We  have a dedicated Student Living team at WCEC, with years of experience and thousands of beds delivered. We are currently working on over 2500 beds across numerous projects, both on and off-campus, all over the UK.

If you want balanced, pragmatic and informed advice on the very latest Student Living design concepts, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We love talking about Student Living!

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The ‘bubble’ of MIPIM

My blogs been quiet for a while. I’ve been really busy with various new projects, both in our Residential and Student Living sectors. Our Student Living port-folio is growing rapidly now with live projects in London and Oxford at present. Other schemes in Coventry, Sheffield, Brighton and Nottingham are in the pipeline and well developed. I’ve also been developing a new strategy in terms of our ‘New Business’ work (Marketing and Business Development). It’s been a pretty positive journey over the last twelve months.

Last week I was over in Cannes for the annual MIPIM conference. This was my fourth consecutive year and I was joined by Board Director Jason Ainsworth, who hadn’t been before.

It’s been interesting seeing the atmosphere change at MIPIM over recent years. This year was electric; there is no doubt that the property market is booming in the UK and confidence is high at present. Of the 22,000 delegates this year, over 5000 were from the UK.

Palais Des Festivals Cannes

We attended a wide range of events and meetings across the week. From these we have a lot of new contacts and opportunities to pursue. We met some great new people, and saw many known contacts too which was equally useful in terms of catching up. Business is all about people and relationships. MIPIM is the perfect platform to meet people and develop relationships that last.

People who haven’t been to MIPIM are still quick to mock it with comments like; “did you enjoy your week in the sun…while we were all working“. I guess you’ll never really understand it unless you experience it.

MIPIM is a whole week of constant networking. That involves eating nice food and drinking coffee, wine and champagne in the sun. The location and environment creates a unique, relaxed atmosphere where people talk more openly than they would do in the relative formality of day-to-day business.

Where else could you meet with Central Government representatives, chief executives of local authorities and Housing Associations, CEO’s/ Chairs of major Development and Construction companies, leading sector property agents, the full spectrum of property related consultants and many more people in between. MIPIM is totally unique.

NLA London ModelThe new NLA London model was unveiled in the London Pavilion.

But MIPIM is intense and tiring. It takes a certain sort of person to be able to do it and you need to be thinking all the time about how you and your company can relate to the people and opportunities you are discussing. You also have to remember a lot and make sure you record what’s been discussed to follow up on. You need to be on top of your game; inside knowledge and contacts are what you need to have.

It also involves being on your feet all week! I have a Jawbone activity tracker. Last week I walked 55 miles and had an average of 5 hours sleep each night. That’s no holiday!

In terms of investment, is it worth it? In my view; Yes. If you host a table of 10 at a property dinner in the UK, you’d pay £1500-2000, for around 3-4 hours of networking. MIPIM is a full week of this and significantly cheaper to be at by comparison. I was invited to a breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday + other events and meetings in between.

The end of last week was a real highlight for me as we were invited to a private BBQ at Tom Bloxham’s Maison Bulle (Bubble House) in the mountains.

A few years ago I met Tom Bloxham from Urban Splash at MIPIM. I knew any business relationship with Tom would take a while to develop and I’d need to do something significant to attract any attention from him. In the second half of 2014 I had various meetings with Tom and introduced him to some of our developer and investor clients who I thought could work with Urban Splash. This has been a really positive process, with a unique and very real opportunity currently emerging from this dialogue. It’s been good to get to know Tom and gain an insight into the incredible Urban Splash story (which Tom tells very well!).

Back to the house; Antii Lovag was the creator the the Bubble House concept; it’s a series of interconnecting concrete dome structures, with circular punctures creating doors and windows. Other than the floor, there are very few flat surfaces in the house. The house also fuses with the rugged rocky landscape. Large rocks puncture the house internally and externally, so the ultra modern smooth domes wrap around the surface of the mountain and contrast with the rough texture of the rocks, both are the same colour. Water is present throughout too; internally the main dome has a water feature/ pool with bridges over it. Externally a large infinity swimming pool and an even larger cold water lake surround the house.

One of Lovag’s more commonly known houses was built for the French Fashion designer Pierre Cardin (see image below), but Toms house is where is all began and indeed where Lovag lived (in a small domed annex house in the grounds) until he passed away last year.

Maison Bulle Teoule-sur-Mer

Toms house in France is shrouded in secrecy. Very few photos are in the public domain and Tom rightly wants to keep it that way (so no photos here I’m afraid). The house was incomplete when Tom bought it. Over the years he has completed the house, working with Lovag, but also making his own mark from his Urban Splash experiences. The building seems to stay true to the spirit of the original designs, but has a contemporary twist in places. It also has an Urban Splash feel. It’s a hugely successful synergy.

The house was an incredible experience. I’ve never seen anything like it and it inspired me as an Architect. It’s is proof that anything is possible (or “Tout est Possible” as Lovag would say).

So back to Blighty. It was cold and slightly foggy as I headed back into London today. There are lots of follow-up’s to do now from last week – and that is the really important bit in terms of getting real value from MIPIM.

The MIPIM bubble has burst for another year, but the work from it will continue for sometime…

The value of writing blogs

It’s my little blog sites third birthday this week! In that time it’s had over 65,000 views, amazingly from every corner of the world too. 33,000 views were in 2014 alone and I posted 37 blogs over that period. Today’s post is my 100th in total.
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Writing posts on my blog is something I’ve enjoyed doing, albeit finding time to write them is a challenge at present! However, I still get really positive comments, very regularly, from people I know and see on my business travels. It’s also something people mention when I first meet them which is good I guess. I conclude from the above that people seem to have enjoyed reading a few posts over the time and therefore I should keep blogging.

In my experience blogs are a really good way of growing and maintaining your profile, whilst also conveying a personality and public voice on issues which are of importance or interest to you. It’s also very good for promoting your business generally which is what’s really important to me.

I’ve tried to keep my content varied, but mostly architecture/ design focused in some way. Last year I recorded just under 2400 views on one day in May and the most popular post that day was WCEC Student Living Launch. Since then we are now actively engaged on four major Student Living projects, with a number of other potentials in the pipeline too. Of the four, there is a real mix of design/ delivery, refurbishment, new-build on and off campus. I’m really pleased with our business growth in this key sector at WCEC over the last year. We now have a dedicated team driving this sector and we are using Revit of course to maximise our efficiency and outputs. I’m still developing some new design concept ideas as well which my clients always like to discuss.

A couple of blogs last year also got me some wider (perhaps unintended) public attention…

There is a proposed housing development in Allestree where I live. It’s on open farm land and has attracted a lot of local resistance! I posted a blog on it back in July and a week later I had been invited by our local MP to stand and lead a talk in front of 200+ people about the Planning process. I was happy to do this, but I didn’t get drawn into the big ‘Say No’ campaign! For me I think the outcome is inevitable. Click here to see the blog.

More recently I had what I’d describe as a ‘parking episode’ at Derby Railway station which, quite frankly infuriated me. I’ve tried not to use the blog as a means to rant openly, but I wanted to make my point publicly after the way I’d been treated. Click here to see it. This post ended up, word for word, across two pages in my local paper and I got lots of social media/ online comments about it. Incidentally, that issue with East Midlands trains ended up with me paying a £35 parking fine and receiving a £50 reimbursement for my late train which I opted to pursue for the first time. I wonder how much the issue cost East Midlands trains in negative press and administration time!

Anyway, back on to more positive things again – thanks very much for calling in over the years and reading a few blogs…hopefully I’ll be able to keep them coming in 2015. I do always really appreciate the feedback too. I’ll be back again soon…

East Midlands Trains | Frustration at Derby Station

I travel to London a lot. The only way to go is by train really and I make the trip 1-2 times a week typically. The service is average at best with a mix of new/ old trains and weak/ slow WiFi connectivity (which is over priced), to name just two frustrations with the service. A standard open return ticket to London is £185.50. You can fly to Europe for that! Interestingly the equivalent ticket to Manchester (which is also a similar journey time) is £55.20.

I park at Derby station (well try to). Rather than a proper multi-storey (like Nottingham and other Cities) Derby’s car parking offer is fragmented into three surface car parks. The main one on Railway Terrace serves multiple functions; it’s a general customer car park, a short stay drop off, parking for the Police, disabled parking and first class parking. The daily charge is £14. There are two other car parks I could use, but one is on Pride Park and the other is behind the Post Office (which I’d rather not leave my car in, especially overnight, due to security concerns).

Most of the parking bays are marked out, although some are vague and some old ones have been partially removed, but are still visible. When the car park is full, the entry barrier continues to allow cars in (as that’s the drop off circuit). There’s no indication that the spaces have run out, other than driving around. Furthermore the signage advising that 30mins entry/ exit is free, is not clear. I assumed that once I was in, I’d be required to pay £14, or some portion of it, if I then exited to park elsewhere. I suspect others are the same.

Because of the unconventional layout, there are areas outside of bays where you could feasibly park without disturbing other vehicles and there’s nothing to discourage you from doing it. It seems that a lot of people use these areas, as did I one day when running late to catch a train.

When I returned I found a parking notice for £70 on my windscreen. My offence was stated as “Causing an obstruction” and “Failing to park correctly within a marked bay”.

There is a single sign which states the regulations for parking, this is by the entry barrier in small font; not exactly an ideal place to be able to read it, either in a car or on foot. The entry into the car park is badly designed/ dangerous too!

Accepting I wasn’t in a marked bay, I had actually parked with some consideration to other vehicles and know for a fact that I wasn’t causing an obstruction on the one-way road. I disputed the charges and also pointed out the inadequate signage, poor use of the entry system and photos of four other vehicles parked ‘illegally’ but without parking notices. One of which was a Police van, which is located there daily!

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My appeal was rejected (twice) and I was advised that other vehicles/ cases could not be discussed due to “Data Protection” (that classic catch all). I wasn’t asking for names and addresses of people! I was simply pointing out a blatant inconsistency in how they manage their policies.

The very next day I parked in the same car park. The photo below is how I found my car when I returned. The white car is clearly completely obstructing my black car in the middle. However there is no parking notice and in fact all three cars are parked in marked bays (although the white car is in an old bay which has been poorly removed).

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Whilst in dialogue with the Appeals Department, I pointed out that my return train on the day of my parking offence was delayed by 34 minutes (there’s that average service again). As stated on the website I am eligible to claim 50% of my journey cost back as I was delayed, this would be £46. I therefore suggested that my parking fine (which is reduced to £35 if paid within 14 days) could be dropped and I wouldn’t pursue a claim for the delayed train (which incidentally I’ve never claimed for previously). That wasn’t an option for them. I’ve now paid my fine and have made a claim for a part-refund of my delayed journey. I will be doing this in all future delay occurrences as well.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that I’m completely innocent here, I accept I didn’t park in a bay. But I do feel aggrieved by my experience of this episode, which has been poor to say the least! The policies East Midlands trains have imposed are badly managed and poorly communicated to customers. Surely better signage and perhaps a warning notice on my car could have been an option before prosecuting me (as I genuinely didn’t know I’d be causing an offence). Why are there no yellow lines on the roads? That would make it much clearer.

My final point is this; why are the Police permitted to blatantly ignore the parking regulations and consistently park in the marked ‘Drop off’ bay and partially on the pedestrian footpath, causing an obstruction to vehicles and compromising safety of pedestrians? If they need easy access to their vehicles, for genuine emergency activity, then they should have clearly marked adequate spaces.

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East Midlands trains, I think you you need to urgently review your parking strategy in Derby and significantly improve how you communicate to your valued (?) customers…

Formula One; They think it’s all over…

It’s been quite a year in F1 with probably good and bad points in equal measures. The year started with much quieter engines which drew criticism about the ‘spirit’ of the sport being lost. However, some of the racing this year has been pretty good.

One team and two drivers have clearly dominated; the Mercedes Benz with Lewis and Nico behind the wheel. The drivers championship could go right to the wire and either driver could win thanks to double points at Abu Dhabi. That could result in a messy end to the season if Nico snatches the title from Lewis. My money is on Lewis.

MERCEDES F1 2014

Its been good to see Vettel lose his dominance in the Red Bull – and even better to see Daniel Ricciado do so well. I’d actually say Ricciardo has been my favorite driver this season.

It’s a shame Jenson Button has struggled this year with a poor car. I still believe he’s one of the best drivers on the grid and it would be a great shame if he didn’t get a seat next year.

My top team this year, despite my long-standing allegiance to McLaren, is actually Williams. They have done an incredible job in returning to competitive form in F1, on a much lower budget than the others!

McLaren and Ferrari have had a woeful year. For two teams who have been in F1 for so long to get it so wrong seems odd, especially as they have big budgets as well.

The recent departure of both Marrussia and Caterham from F1 has brought to light some serious questions of Bernie Ecclestone (again!) For two teams encouraged to enter F1 with financial support, to then go into administration because the support hasn’t been delivered on is wrong. The balance of funding in F1 is unbelievable.

There’s a really interesting article by Andrew Benson at the BBC on how F1 funding works, what budgets the teams have and how much the drivers earn (or contribute) – click here to see it

Formula one generates an annual income of £1.1bn. 63% of that goes back to the teams. However the way the money is distributed is crazy and supports the dominance of Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren.  Other teams such as Force India, Williams etc. get much less. Top teams have a racing budget of £250m, they then have separate budgets for things like marketing and hospitality. Smaller teams like Marrussia race on £70m.

I think most people would agree that the racing is what it’s all about in terms of fan support; the strength of the drivers and the teams working together to a generate subtle competitive edge. If so much is influenced by money ‘off the track’ – and the bias of that is firmly placed towards certain selected teams, then surely to some extent the sport ‘on track’ has no real integrity?

So as F1 this season nears a potentially dramatic conclusion, more controversy seems to hang over the sport and question whether its sustainable in the way it’s currently led? Will 2014 be Lewis’s 2nd title year? What will emerge in 2015 to make sure the sport remains engaging and successful?

Mercedes Benz

mipim UK

Last week saw the launch of mipim UK in London. Whilst the organisers and name of the event may be consistent with the annual property pilgrimage to Cannes in the south of France, the event in London was actually very different. Initially I was very negative about it on Wednesday, but the event grew on me through the week.

I’ve talked lots on this blog about what defines mipim in Cannes and how unique it is in terms of an annual event of value to the property market. The UK event was really more of an Expo; a collection of stands which varied from Local Authorities, Developers, Investors, Law firms and the odd Consultant. It was really a show of the regions and everyone was ‘open for business’ (?). Unlike Cannes, the action/ events outside of the conference seemed very limited. I guess a large proportion of delegates were London based so would have been visiting the event, rather than basing themselves there. I also read that 80% of delegates were mipim first timers.

Getting into the conference proved a challenge on the first day as a public protest blocked the entrance to Olympia and even involved mud being thrown, literally. See the Guardian piece on it here.

The talks (well, the ones I could actually get into!) were focused on; a) the seemingly infinite expansion on London fueled of course by foreign investment, and b) The future of our regional cities. The exhibitor presence seemed to major more on the regional cities than London. One key observation was that Manchester and Liverpool shared a stand; promoting a collaborative presence, rather than competing. It seems that George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse idea has gained much momentum and support already.

Key themes which emerged from the event were;

  • Supporting devolution of power from Central Government to the Regions.
  • The long term impact of overseas Investment on the UK property market.
  • How to promote the regional economies, with HS2+3 being hailed as the answer to all.

Nottingham had a ‘proper’ presence at this event which was good. They had a brand new stand in a prime location – this was much better than the rather generic “D2N2” version used at mipim in Cannes.

On Friday I attended an interesting talk on Tall Buildings in the UK. On the panel was president elect of the RIBA Jane Duncan. One of her key messages at the moment is to promote the importance of having the best quality Planning officers within our UK Local Authorities.

We’ve been facing a few frustrations in recent months on new projects, as LA’s were quick to cut back their Planning Departments in the recession and now they are feeling the strain. The positive outcome of new buildings is heavily influenced by the Planning Process and to be quite honest our system is still pretty weak it seems to me, particularly with the new pre-application process. The key issue is that LA’s don’t see Planning as ‘income generating’ (?!). Rees Peter Wynne, who is a Professor of Places and City Planning, at UCL suggested that if we want to take Planning seriously in the future, they should teach more about it a Eton College as that’s where our future leaders seem to emerge from.

So was it worth it? I think so. I saw a good number of people I know, including clients who I spent time with. I also made a number of new connections which was useful and will hopefully lead to new opportunities.

Mipim of course is not about instant results – it’s all part of a rich organic web of profile raising and relationship development which, if managed properly, will lead to new work down the line.

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