Clyde Shanks: proactive planning

PEYE 141113KB1 018 Clyde Shanks talks to Owen McQuade about his consultancy’s approach to planning and the positives in the system, which must be maintained as reform approaches.

The perception of delays in planning has been a recurring story in recent years but Clyde Shanks strikes a different note when discussing his experience of the system.

“Our engagement with DoE Planning on the whole has been increasingly positive,” he states, and this includes the Strategic Projects Team and the divisional offices. “It’s been responsive and generally speaking the speed of decision-making has been improved.”

The concept of development management “is starting to filter across their network” and he is clear that this must continue: “The good work that has been done could very quickly disappear when we move from what is in effect one strategic lead to 11 strategic leads within the new councils and a retained, overseeing unit centrally within the DoE.”

The planning system, in his view, is delivering better results than before partly due to the reduced number of applications but also due to the concerted effort to change the mind-set of planning.

The last two years since he established his planning consultancy have been “extremely enjoyable,” Shanks remarks. “It’s been very rewarding and time has passed very quickly. The enjoyment and the fulfilment comes from the diversity of the client base that we’ve managed to secure pleasing results for. We’re busy across a number of growth areas within the market: renewable energy, waste infrastructure and, encouragingly, a more recent upturn in housing and in liquor licensing work.” Business has also grown among fixed charge receivers and he notes a “more positive interest” in pre-planning and progressing residential sites.

The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s May 2013 move to the Maze-Long Kesh site went through the strategic projects planning process in six months. “For such a high profile project, it was certainly very satisfying,” Shanks comments.

The consultancy has also done significant work over the last 15 months in preparing a planning application for a major waste infrastructure project for 11 councils in greater Belfast. The client, in this case, is the major energy firm E.ON Energy from Waste, the driving force behind the Becon project. The consultancy has also secured planning permission for a commercial leisure development for Turkington in Craigavon, which will be anchored by Omniplex Cinemas.

PEYE 141113KB1 165 “We’ve been extremely busy in bringing forward and securing planning permissions for major commercial windfarms and high volumes of single turbines,” he continues. In addition to that, several projects for anaerobic digestion facilities are either within the system or have secured planning permission.

He now has a team of six qualified planners and hopes to increase the size of the team in the coming 12 months. Asked if he considers confidence in the sector to be more solid, he replies: “The last six months have certainly felt that way. Expectations have changed in terms of what clients want. Increasingly I think clients in Northern Ireland want local people in local firms with proven expertise and a tangible sense of delivering value for money.” Clients are very “fee-conscious” and with a well balanced team and office, the company has been able to target clients and make sure that it offers value for money as well as to put them quickly at ease that they can help them secure their development ambitions.

He had always wanted to set up a company and one of the drivers was to go ahead before he turned 40. “My father had set up his own insurance and estate agency business when he was in his thirties,” Shanks comments. “Having been a director in a consultancy in Belfast for a number of years, I could see that a lot of the core markets (e.g. housing, large mixed-use development schemes) were slowing after 2008. I could see the emerging markets coming – such as renewable energy and waste infrastructure – and that’s very much where we’ve concentrated. That’s where the focus has been.”

The pivotal moment for the firm was being brought in to manage the £240 million waste infrastructure project, the single largest infrastructural investment to date in Northern Ireland: “It sent a very strong message that Clyde Shanks has the capability and resource to handle the very biggest of projects and can compete with anybody in the marketplace.”

Skills

The company had 60 applications for the post of senior planner last year. So many people had lost their jobs in recent years but many of them also had the “level and depth of expertise” that is needed in a rising market. Clyde Shanks is also open about its ethos, based on deeply held principles of hard work, commitment, passion, attention to detail, loyalty, understanding and fairness.

“One of the simple motivations when we started and which remains, is to be established as the planning consultancy of choice,” Shanks remarks. “It is very gratifying to know that clients come to us because they have decided we are the people who are best equipped to achieve the results that they need.”

The company takes a diligent and pro-active attitude to move the planning process forward as efficiently as possible. Based on Oxford Street, its office is convenient to the Belfast courts.

“Clients like where we are. They like how we’re set up,” Shanks reflects. “They know that the bottom line is a focus on delivering high quality in everything we do. They appreciate that we share their passion and want to get results as badly as they do. We like to surprise a client by providing intelligence or information that he doesn’t really anticipate or expect from us. The team has a united focus on continuous improvement and enhancing the quality of its offer.”

PEYE 141113KB1 104 Reform

Planning is in considerable flux with the transfer of powers to new councils due to take place in April 2015. Significant amendments to the Planning Bill would have allowed the First and deputy First Ministers to designate ‘economically significant planning zones’ but this, in part, prompted the Environment Minister to withdraw the Bill in late October.

“I think the Environment Minister is quite right to do what he’s doing,” Shanks adds. “What the system doesn’t need is any more complication right now or further dilution of already squeezed resources. We have a system in place and the weight that’s attached to the economic importance, investment levels and jobs created in development proposals is very much to the fore.”

For him, the focus has to be on ensuring that the existing system is fully resourced with the right level of staffing and expertise focused to where pressure is greatest. Pre-application discussions are at their best when officials are focused and committed with experienced planning officers and civil servants across the consultee network being “integral” to the early preparation of planning applications.

This approach proved successful in the RUAS case and has proved successful on a number of previous proposals where major investments have not been delayed in planning, notably at Titanic Quarter, Ikea and Ballyclare to name a few.

Community consultation will also form part of planning reform, with applicants being required to demonstrate how they have engaged with local residents through submission of a statement of community involvement. That already happens in the larger projects and Clyde Shanks has helped to facilitate 10 information sessions to inform local people about the Becon proposals for the proposed Hightown Quarry waste management facility. A big focus has been placed on securing local feedback on what is planned.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to gather “proper genuine feedback” from communities, regardless of the amount of publicity and information provided: “It will be interesting, going forward, to see how genuinely successful that’s going to be. Ultimately, the onus will be on the applicant to demonstrate that they have done it.”

Management

Shanks returned to Northern Ireland in 1999 after working with the English planning system, which is effectively similar to the post-2015 system envisaged in Northern Ireland.

“It’s quite ironic that, after 15 years of being home, I’m going to return to the system that I spent the first five years of my career working on,” he comments. The traditional model in Northern Ireland comprises development plans – setting out land use zonings – and development control.

There has been frustration that the decision-maker mind-set has sometimes not been as progressive as it could and should have been. In his view, planning officers have sometimes given the impression that they operated with a certain attitude: “I’ll have a look at your proposal to see what’s wrong with it rather than what’s right with it.” That is alien to the principle of what the very system is built upon – that planning permission should be forthcoming unless there is demonstrable harm.

Shanks welcomes the change in language in the anticipated new regime, suggesting a move away from the stuffiness and rigidity of ‘development control’ towards a fresher form of ‘development management’. The new model promises a “more professional, engaged partnership style of working” between the applicant and the decision-maker, through which timescales and targets will be agreed.

“That, to me, is all very positive,” Shanks adds. “That’s what, I suppose, I’ve spent much of the last 15 years trying to do. Our ethos is always to try, where we possibly can, to speak to the planners very early, to present any proposals that we’re bringing forward and seek their feedback. Similarly we have also sought to do the same thing with local councillors and public representatives.”

He explains: “The introduction of the pre-application discussions through the Strategic Projects Team and that being rolled out to divisional offices has all been about early engagement and providing the decision-maker with sufficient information for them to take a considered and informed view.”

A blank sheet of paper achieves nothing. “You need to do your homework – there is no substitute for that,” he adds. “You need to have a very clear understanding of what you want to do, how you want to go about getting their agreement and when you want to get there.”

Belfast - Northern Ireland - 18th October 2013

Clyde Shanks

Picture by Brian Thompson/Presseye.com Challenges

DoE planners are, though, apprehensive about the change which will involve moving a large number of officials to the councils after a series of experienced staff retirements. He accepts that the structural changes “still remain to be ironed out” and recognises the nervousness about where people will be located: “There’s a bit of jockeying for position, I suspect, in relation to that.”

Shanks also expects that clients will change how they apply for planning permission during a bedding down period, which may last for 3-5 years. This may mean an increased workload for the Planning Appeals Commission with applicants trying to get a “quick fix”.

From a professional’s viewpoint, the transfer of planning powers to councils “makes sense in so many ways.” Shanks elaborates: “It’s more accountable. You’ve got locally elected members who ultimately will be responsible for taking decisions within their areas. That, for me, is a natural place where decision-making ought to be. In addition to the day-to-day work, they will also want to put their own stamp on the future development of their towns and villages through new development plans. It promises to be an exciting time.”

The level of political maturity “remains to be seen” but the interplay between local councils and the retained central planning unit in the DoE “will be fascinating to see.” He hopes for an inward investment “return” as the political situation stabilises. The office market is still very much “public sector-orientated” and retail vacancy rates are high. Helpfully, the housing market is starting to improve and he expects that more work in this sector will follow as we move into 2014.

On a final point, Shanks urges caution as Environment Minister Mark H Durkan moves to consolidate all planning policy statements into one document. In doing so, Shanks wants him to ensure that existing positive policies are kept on board.

“Fundamentally, that’s what the system needs,” he comments. “When you’re moving to such massive transformation, you can’t tinker and change the glue that makes the whole system work. In terms of interpretation and application of policy people are familiar with much of what we have. That familiarity has to be strongly maintained.”

Profile: Clyde Shanks

Clyde is originally from Portballintrae, and finds that he is renewing his childhood with his young family with crab fishing, going to the beach and playing golf. Married with two boys and a girl, he is a keen golfer and coaches P6 boys’ hockey on Saturday mornings. He is also a huge Manchester United fan and tries to get over to Old Trafford regularly.

His first job, after studying planning at Dundee, was in London with Barton Willmore and he then worked in their head office in Reading for four years. Clyde came back to Northern Ireland at Christmas 1999 to work in the local planning consultancy sector and set up his own consultancy in September 2011.

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