Planning matters

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A short history of planning consultancy ft. Geoff Smith
It’s almost unheard of to be presented with the opportunity to write about the achievements of a member of staff who has almost 50 years’ service in the same company. It’s an absolute privilege when that person is a living legend of the profession and one of the original founders and shapers of planning consultancy as it exists today. Geoff Smith is our longest serving member of staff by some distance, serving over the years as an assistant, partner, director, managing director, and chairman; and now as one of our three non-executive directors guiding the future direction of the business. His contribution to Lichfields and the profession has been absolutely massive. Put most simply it has led to the building of many thousands of new homes, shops, offices and other uses to help meet the needs of a population in the UK that has grown by 11 million people over his time in practice. Geoff started his career at Lichfields, or Nathaniel Lichfield and Associates as it was back in the day, in 1969 in a two room office in Portland Place. Aged 23 he worked alongside three other assistants; they were none other than Michael Edwards, the late Honor Chapman and Mike Whitbread, all under the direction of our founder Nat Lichfield. What a planning team that was! Geoff Smith aged 25, hard at work in our Portland Place offices Geoff’s first two jobs couldn’t have been a better indicator of the general type of work that was to follow over many years for him, the business and indeed for much of the planning consultancy profession that was beginning to emerge beyond a handful of practices. He advised on Brent Cross shopping centre, the UK’s first ever out-of-town shopping centre; and alongside that worked for Milton Keynes Development Corporation on their masterplan, the new towns being a long running source of work for us as they were a major focus of housebuilding at the time. Brent Cross, one of Geoff’s first big projects in the late ‘60s early ‘70s Back in the 1970s planning consultancy essentially combined two main offers - masterplanning and land use economics consultancy. Geoff and the firm almost single-handedly invented the application of surveying and economic techniques to land use planning analysis; and from this, retail impact and housing need studies mushroomed alongside cost-benefit analysis which was very much in vogue at that time. Planning applications were simple affairs and almost solely within the architects’ domain. Planning consultancies were almost exclusively London based but covered the whole of the UK. The economic problems of the late 1970s meant the survival of the firm relied increasingly on working abroad. Geoff led major projects including a shopping strategy for Randstadt in Holland, a redevelopment plan for modernising the centre of Tehran and planning for a new state capital city in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Invitation to dinner from the Mayor of Tehran, and Geoff at a subsequent visit to a local market in 1975 Things changed considerably in the 1980s. The laissez-faire approach to planning led to a proliferation of planning inquiries and Geoff really came into his element. Having been given his first opportunity to give evidence at the ripe old age of 27 (when Nat Lichfield was trapped in Israel due to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and unable to appear himself) Geoff became one of the UK’s top expert witnesses as this tide of inquiries began. After several hundred inquiries later - and having been called by the likes of the late Roy Vandermeer OBE, the late Lionel Read and Michael Fitzgerald OBE amongst many other pre-eminent barristers along the way - it wasn’t until 2003 that Geoff finally hung up his inquiry boots. Funnily enough the last one was for the extension of the Westgate Centre in Oxford, a subsequent incarnation of which has just opened its doors for trading. These inquiries led to thousands of new homes, hundreds of supermarkets and retail warehouses, dozens of shopping centres and hotels, two theme parks and two major new airports! Geoff’s commercial awareness and his surveying (on top of his planning) background stood him and the business in good stead as the workload expanded to include development management and the furnishing of planning applications for private sector clients with EIAs and all the technical work that was never previously required. Long gone are those far less complicated days of the ‘red line outline planning application’ when the submission amounted to little more than just a red line plan! The likes of M&S, Madame Tussauds (now part of Merlin Entertainments), Capital Shopping Centres (now intu), pension funds and developers emerged as the backbone of our client base. Alongside a growth in development management and plan-making type work, planning consultancy started to regionalise, this being cemented some time later by the localism agenda. Geoff was instrumental in the opening of our Newcastle office 25 years ago on the back of the emerging proposals at that time for Newcastle Great Park, an extension to the urban area on the north-western outskirts of the City; and then Cardiff as the business moved towards the eight office offer we have now. With Geoff having set the company firmly on its current course he continued his fifty year journey by becoming chairman and now serves us as a non-executive director, applying his strategic mind in a different but equally important way. Geoff led the successful expansion of the company through the 1980s and 1990s and various changes in structure to help create the opportunities for many others who have followed in his footsteps. From that small office of six staff in Portland Place the company has now grown to its current complement of over 215 staff in eight offices across the UK – the numbers speak for themselves! And what has brought this tribute on? I was passing the time after a meeting today with a client and in passing he mentioned two of his projects at Brent Cross and Milton Keynes. I immediately thought of Geoff, the importance of those projects to him and the history of our company and remembered that I had a story to tell.  

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Self-Build: an innovative solution for ending homelessness in the 21st Century
A lack of affordable, good quality housing in the UK is affecting everyone; thousands of people are being priced out of their homes every year. For more than 78,000 households (a city the size of Wolverhampton)[i], this means living in temporary accommodation, and for many more, on the street. With a record number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation (a figure which has doubled in the past five years)[ii], its critical to look at innovative approaches to help alleviate homelessness. My approach, as detailed below, would be to explore the potential of self-build accommodation, supported by additional social infrastructure and training. A common misconception of homelessness is that chaotic lifestyle choices are a fundamental cause. According to recent research undertaken by Homeless Link [iii], in England some 4,750 people sleep rough on any one night, an increase of 15% since 2016 and 73% in the last three years. This steep rise in homelessness reflects structural changes relating to housing provision and welfare reforms, including but not limited to the end of assured shorthold tenancies (2010), the introduction of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (2012), the roll out of universal credit (2015), cuts to young people’s housing benefits (2017), a shortage of affordable housing more generally and ever-soaring rents[iv]. Despite this inexcusable rise, responses are slow; as we have seen with the £28m rough sleeping fund still being unspent[v] and recent comments made by the new homeless minister, Heather Wheeler, are causes for concern[vi]. As professionals in the built environment, we can use our influence to create homes, places and cities that are designed to work for everyone. This belief was the main driver behind my post-graduate research project, entitled ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’, which formed part of my MSc Urban Design and City Planning course at The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. In partnership with Trident Group[vii], a Midlands-based organisation which aims to help the most vulnerable by providing good quality affordable homes, services and support, my MSc thesis proposed a new way in which housing associations could better use small un­der-utilised pieces of land within their ownership (for example garages sites[viii]), as self-build sites for groups of ‘self-build ready’ homeless individuals and families. ‘Forgotten Land, Forgotten People’ builds on the international success of Housing First[ix] and ties together the benefits of self-building, the pressures currently faced by housing associations (such as the 1% Rent Reduction, Right to Buy Extension and introduction of the Value for Money Standard) and the need for more affordable, adequate and secure housing to present an innovative solution for tackling homelessness through the built environment. To fully explore the potential of the idea, my research looked at new self-build housing in the form of a physical intervention in a series of garage and garage court sites on a post-war housing estate in Birmingham. The physical scheme was based on specific criteria (set out below) and sought to respond to the many issues faced by homeless people, including the physical and mental health problems they often face. Looking beyond physical place-making, the project aimed to seize some of the opportunities that lie in creating the built environment. The process of self-building also has the potential to help alleviate many of the consequences of homeless­ness; it can equip participants with some of the necessary tools and skills to help integrate them back into society. New technologies and systems such as WikiHouse[x] can help to support this outcome, through lowering the skills’ thresholds needed and the costs involved in building homes. For a project such as this to work, it has to overcome barriers and provide incentives to convince all stakeholders it can work for them. This is vital to ensure they are willing and able to take on the risks of a project potentially causing tenancy sustainment concerns, a need for intensive support and ongoing management requirements. The process of taking a ‘self-build ready’ group and enabling them to build their own homes is not a short-term quick win for housing associations. However, the benefits would be felt widely across the both the development and health sectors - and beyond - through providing new homes and opportunities for homeless people, cleaning up a previously under- or unused and resented site, and delivering a marketable ‘product’. Whilst my project focussed on utilising garage sites for permanent homes, further discussions indicate that this prototype solution could work for many stakeholders even if only on a temporary basis, for example as a meanwhile use for a development site which aligns with the new Draft London Plan (Policy H4, Meanwhile Use)[xi]. Following conversations with other housing associations and local authorities including Clarion Housing Group, Birmingham City Council, the West Midlands Combined Authority and more recently MHCLG, the GLA and the Y:Foundation, I believe my project could be an important part of the solution to end homelessness. I want to continue the conversation, take the concept forward and ultimately, finding a partner or two to help deliver a pilot scheme. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are interested. james.andrewcox@lichfields.uk | @JamesCox94   [i] https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/homelessness-monitor-england-2018[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/11/deaths-of-uk-homeless-people-more-than-double-in-five-years[iii] https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts/homelessness-in-numbers/rough-sleeping/rough-sleeping-our-analysis[iv]http://england.shelter.org.uk/campaigns_/why_we_campaign/the_housing_crisis/what_is_the_housing_crisis[v] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/28m-rough-sleeper-fund-still-unspent-qrgvfjsnd[vi] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/18/homelessness-minister-heather-wheeler-rough-sleeping-housing-first[vii] https://tridentgroup.org.uk/[viii] Garage sites provide a huge opportunity for residential development and this has been recognised by the Mayor of London in the new Draft London Plan and the ‘Small Sites, Small Builders’ program launched in February 2018, to bring forward small plots of publicly owned land.[ix] https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2017/mar/22/finland-solved-homelessness-eu-crisis-housing-first[x] https://wikihouse.cc/[xi] Draft London Plan  

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