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Interview with Ian Anderson, Managing Director, Iceni Projects

April 20, 2012

Where did you study planning and what skills did you have when you graduated?
Oxford Brookes University. I had a decent understanding of planning theory, but not much in the way of practical skills. I remember being terrified of having to speak to anyone on the phone!

What attracted you to planning?
A chance encounter with a career advisor at school. I was interested in Politics, Economics and Human Geography, and along with English, took the subjects as A-Levels. Maybe like a lot of young people, I hadn’t worked out that I could take the best of those subject into a specific career; I was fortunate that the career advisor not only pinpointed town planning as a career, but had the wherewithal to advise me to speak to my local council, and to focus on university courses that could result in a professional accreditation. By the time I got to university I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do afterwards.

Where was your first job and what did you learn?
My first job was voluntary. I left university in 1995, at the back end of the last recession. 200 people were applying for every graduate appointment, and I needed some work experience. I ended up working for Bedford Borough Council during the week – for which I was immensely grateful – and working in a meat factory at weekends to earn some money. The first thing I learnt was communication, initially with other people in the office, but really dealing with the public; the random telephone enquiry, and having to function as a duty planning officer.

What skills have you had to learn over your career?
How about the four ‘p’s?: Planning, Politics, Patience and Pragmatism. The more experienced I’ve got, and the bigger projects one becomes involved with, the more I’ve has to understand the political context in which planning sits. Planning is not a subject that is out of reach to the public; most people have an opinion on the factory redevelopment, road scheme, or green field that is being tabled within their community – and are not afraid to let their councillor or local newspaper know. There is rarely a pure planning response to a planning question; it’s more often than not in a planning context. So understanding the pressures that local authority planners are under, what’s making an authority tick, and what communities are saying, is vital.
From a more practical perspective being able to manage more than one job at any one time is essential to a planner –be that in the public or private sector. Managing clients’ expectations, and delegating – putting trust in other people to get results,- are all important. I also think it’s vital to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses: for example, I’m not a particularly organised person, so I make sure I have organised people alongside me. Recognising your weaknesses as much as pushing your strengths becomes a skill in itself.

What or who have been the biggest influences in your career?
From a planning perspective my biggest influence was Danny Simmonds at what was TPC and then RPS. I was initially employed as his graduate planner and he put up with a lot more than I probably even now realise! From a property perspective there have been a number of strong influences. I’ve learnt that it is possible to have absolute integrity and still be successful.. I’ve seen very successful people overstretch themselves and lose almost everything. Seeing how people act on the way down as well as on the way up has been a valuable lesson. I’ve seen how single minded and driven many property people are. It is not by luck that the good ones are successful.

What is your career highlight?
I’d like to think I haven’t had it yet. Where Iceni is now – I’m pretty proud of that, but I’d like to think that in 10 years time I’ll be prouder still. I don’t mean that from a pure commercial perspective; watching some of the people who have joined – some who have been with Iceni from the outset, I’ve watched them grow, and they’re doing very well in their careers and that is very satisfying.

What led you to establishing Iceni?
Iceni Projects was as much accident as design. Immediately before establishing Iceni in 2005 I was working for a development company. Although I really enjoyed working for the company – and they remain one of our best clients – we disagreed on the direction that the company should be going. I remember I resigned one particular Friday evening. I came home and told my pregnant wife what I’d done, and basically had the weekend to think about what I was going to do next! One of the reasons we are called Iceni Projects and not ‘Iceni Planning’ is because I didn’t know if I was even a planner anymore, as I’d been working developer side. But I am a planner. I’d gone developer side and learnt a great deal from that, and I think working on the developer side has made me a better, more balanced planner. It wasn’t part of some master plan that I’d set out on but it ended up being a very good career path.

How does Iceni distinguish itself from other consultancies?
Iceni offers consultancy advice from a commercial perspective, and we try to stay in tune with the pressures and constraints that developers are under. We recognise the cost of money, particularly at the planning stage – which is often high risk. We always have this in mind and try to be as proactive and flexible as we can. I should stress that that isn’t at the expense of other good forms of practice, but I believe our commercial mindset does set us apart from many others.

What does the future hold for Iceni?
In the short term – growth. We’ve had an excellent recession, if I can put it that way. Like pushing a boulder, Iceni started moving slowly – which was largely inevitable, seeing as I started on my own, without a business plan, and without the commitment of any clients. However, the boulder has really gathered momentum, particularly during the last two years. We want to build up a strong base in planning and associated disciplines, both so that we’re robust and resilient now, but also strong when market sentiment fully returns. We intend to stay true to our values, which first and foremost means being client facing; keeping in mind that we’re in business to provide added value to our clients.

What do you look for in a prospective candidate?
We expect people to have a base level of planning knowledge, and obviously depending upon the role, differing levels of skills and experience. However, beyond that we principally look for individuality and enthusiasm. We do not have a corporate mindset to recruitment; we are intuitively attracted to people with spark and dynamism. A candidate does not necessarily need to be the finished article. We recognise that none of us are perfect, and never will be. At a senior level we want people who are going to bring another dimension to the business, be that client base, business plan, or associated discipline. At a junior level we want to feel that a candidate is genuinely interested in a career in planning. We make a major commitment to that person when we employ them, and we expect to see the same level of commitment in return. It is in both of our interests for that person to progress and to have a successful career at Iceni.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the development industry at the moment?
In general terms, access to development finance. We’ve been fortunate in that some of our clients felt the market had overheated by 2006, and therefore pulled back from projects at that time. They have been able to benefit subsequently, and are in a position to draw on private finance. We have seen a lot of our clients coming back into the market, which is one of the reasons why we’ve had a good recession, and why we’ve never been busier. But there’s no doubt, if you look more generally, particularly outside of London, and with house building in particular, that funding is a massive constraint to development. We’ve been fortunate enough not to have been unduly hit by the downturn, but limited access to funding has made life a lot more difficult for many, and will probably continue to do so for much of the rest of this decade.

How do you think the NPPF will affect your clients?
There is no doubt in my mind that the power lies with the Town Halls. However, with power comes responsibility, and accountability. I think the whole thing with Localism and the NPPF is that clients will get out what they put in.

My romantic vision as a consequence of Localism and the NPPF is that in the same way that we are told that we have a choice as to which school we send our kids to or which hospital we go to for treatment, so developers have a choice as to which towns and cities they invest in. Those authorities that are modern, professional and open for business should prosper, because through our consultancy advice, and the advice of our contemporaries, clients will choose to work in those areas. Equally, those authorities that are unprofessional, disorganised or simply opposed to development should not be the prime targets for our clients to invest in.

I hope that the development industry will work that out, and rather than trying to push water uphill they will bypass those locations. Now I accept that this is idealistic and there will be times where a client has an existing investment, and will need to manage the situation as best as possible.

On the whole I’m actually quite positive about the NPPF. I don’t see it being a developer’s charter – as the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph would have the public believe. Equally I don’t think it’s a moratorium on development either. At its heart it is about applying the best practices that already exist in the public sector and the private sector, and applying those practices regularly. This includes public consultation, proper engagement with stakeholders, due diligence and consultation before acquiring sites. These things should be common sense and good business practice. If it transpires that a particular local authority or community isn’t interested in investment and development, target the ones that are.

How is Iceni preparing to advise on the impact of Localism/CIL?

We saw Localism coming over the hillside because we had quite a lot of engagement with the Policy Exchange long before the last General Election, who were advising the Conservatives in opposition on potential changes to the Planning System. Certainly when Localism was being led by the then shadow CLG team we had extensive reservations, but we prepared for it nonetheless. We brought in Nick Cooper to head up our Community Planning team and I think that his team is going to be our biggest growth area going forward over the next few years. The days of asking a planning consultant to simply do a policy appraisal on a site are gone as far as I’m concerned. As a first port of call, a client would get better value from finding out what people want in their area, what the authority wants, and seeing whether there is a political will to deliver what is being proposed. I come back to the point that if an authority or community are opposed to a form of development, there has to be a very good reason to pursue that project if a similar commercial return could be achieved in an alternative authority more quickly and more efficiently. This understanding won’t come through a desk-based planning appraisal without consultation and interaction. So this is the main thing we’ve done in terms of preparing for Localism, and I think our clients have really appreciated this approach.

In terms of CIL, we’re keeping our own league table of the different London authorities and authorities throughout the country. We’re looking at trends and we’re encouraging our clients to make representations wherever possible. I think that CIL at GLA level is a classic case of something almost going through without a voice of opposition from the development industry. We’ve effectively got the GLA CIL, but it’s not too late to comment on the majority of local authority CIL’s. If we have CIL in its current format in a number of authorities I think you’ll see a massive impact on development, there is absolutely no doubt about that in my mind. If viability is not a reason for offsetting CIL then development won’t happen. CIL might work in Kensington and Chelsea but is it going to work in a rural authority in Norfolk? I can’t see it and I can’t see the logic of a CIL policy that only applies to residential and commercial but not to other land uses – which many authorities are proposing. If you’ve got a site which is border line as to whether it could be a site for residential or a site for student housing why is anyone going to go for residential if they have to give away x% of profit in CIL contributions? If that site has already been acquired and it’s been on the books since prior to the credit crunch and it’s only just beginning to look like it might have a prospect of being viable again, CIL is going to kick it back another 3 years. It’s too late in the GLA’s office but it’s not too late in a number with the majority of local authorities, and so we’re trying to get our clients to take the risk of CIL as seriously as possible.

Where do you see the best potential for growth in the current climate?
For us it’s probably in community planning and political audits, and more forensic analysis to inform clients as to which sites to buy and helping them to manage these through the pre-application stage and then the application submission stage. Acting as a conduit between the local authorities, local community groups, councillors, and MP’s, more so than perhaps the more traditional planning consultancy approach. To Iceni this means something different to lobbying, because, as my colleague Nick Cooper always says, you bring a lobbyist in when you’ve already hit trouble, whereas what we’re trying to do is to provide a route map before the client has even invested their money, and then finding the best way to navigate that project through the planning system. We’ve also invested heavily in our transport team and our sustainability team and we’ve got great hopes for these disciplines as well. But I think coming from a planning consultancy background it’s almost like we’re connected at the hip with community planning whereas with transportation and with sustainability there may or may not be a need to bring in those disciplines. I can’t really think of a situation where you shouldn’t want to bring in community engagement; it should just be normal practice as far as I see it.

Further afield, planning has not become a less complicated process since the advent of Localism. There will continue to be a requirement for extensive supporting analysis and documentation. As our name suggests, the project management side of planning will also become more important. A client cannot afford to have consultants running off doing different things at different times. There is definitely a need for a lad consultant to put in place a clear strategy and timeframe, and to act as a conduit between the client and consultant team..

Aside from planning what other interests do you have?

I’m beginning to wonder if I have time for any to be honest! I’ve got a young family who I don’t see enough of during the week so I try as far as possible to keep my weekends free for my wife and 3 kids. I’ve become too old and cynical to watch Ipswich anymore. I still support them but I’ve taken the easy way out and go and watch Fulham instead because it’s close to where I live and I don’t mind if they lose and I can get home in 45 minutes. Apart from that, the usual – I like the odd glass of beer or wine and a nice meal. I could do with a bit more sleep!

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