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Interview with Robin Shepherd, Partner, Barton Willmore LLP

April 20, 2012

Where did you study planning and what skills did you have when you graduated?
I studied at Cardiff University. The course was quite academic and focused more on theoretical knowledge, with only latter modules focussing upon some of the more vocational aspects of the profession. However, once I started working I realised the scale of opportunities and challenges that planning presents.

Where was your first job and what did you learn?
My first job was work experience at Preseli District Council and the most valuable lesson I learned was to wear shoes with good grip! I was taken on a site visit by one of the Planning Officers to assess a settlement boundary and much to her surprise, when she turned around to ask me a question, I had disappeared half way down a cliff!

What skills have you had to learn over your career?
To look for angles, to be positive and to never give up – no matter what the challenges are. Probably the most crucial skill though is to try to understand other people’s perspectives and what drives them – by putting yourself in others’ shoes you can understand how to find solutions that will be attractive to everyone.

What or who have been the biggest influences in your career?

It wouldn’t be any one single person. I’m naturally drawn to people who are very passionate about what they do. I think at different times in your career you meet people who, whether you agree with them or not, are very passionate about what they believe in and I think it’s much more genuine and heartfelt when they truly believe what they stand for and provide a strong case based upon those beliefs.

There are certain people I have met in my career, not necessarily just planners, who undertake their business in a very genuine and open way and others who are more argumentative or strong willed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they come across as well. I think people that can consider another person’s opinion even though they might not agree with it but add something that others wouldn’t have thought of, are the people that stand out as having an influence on you as you can take something from the experience of dealing with them.

What is your career highlight?
It was securing consent for the redevelopment of a former military air base in an AONB in Gloucestershire. There were already about a thousand people living on the site and they had real issues with basic infrastructure that the vast majority of us take for granted: they had to cope with regular power cuts and they couldn’t all use their taps at the same time. The site consisted of the remains of the former air base and a shop, there were derelict buildings and the infrastructure was designed for military use and in need of significant investment – hence the issues. Despite all of this, the LPA refused to even consider the proposed redevelopment because it was contrary to policy.

I spent two years working with the community to find a solution that enabled enough investment for the new infrastructure that was so desperately needed. The scheme included a new school, shops, a health centre, a pub and a park as well as local jobs, with new homes to fund the community infrastructure. It addressed the derelict buildings that the community felt blighted by and preserved those it wanted to keep. The highlight of the whole project was listening to the Parish Council at the Public Inquiry pleading with the Inspector to give consent to the scheme. This experience was a perfect example of Localism, despite the fact that this was long before its advent.

What further skills do you aim to obtain or develop?
Finding new ways to work with communities and to create more successful places. It’s not just about development for the sake of development but about creating places for people. Developers can’t just build buildings and expect communities to function – we all need to focus on creating communities over the long term.

To do this, you need to work with community ambassadors who can help to bring people together. Then the communities can decide what they want and the developer becomes the enabler. Inevitably this will require a collaborative and cooperative culture between Council, communities and developers – which is a real skill in coordinating.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for developers at the moment?
The market. I think it’s a completely different world we’re now living in because two things have changed: One is the market – whereas before the recession, in most areas developers would sell as quickly as they could build, now they can only sell to a certain number of people and it’s more about how quickly they can sell them rather than how quickly they can build them. It changes their whole business model.

The other thing that has changed is the whole planning system: It’s a completely new world and a new way of doing things and it’s very easy to slip back into the old ways, particularly as a lot of businesses were structured around doing things the way they’ve always done them. It’s now about understanding this new approach and changing completely the way we do things.

So those are the two challenges they face but it all comes down to the new world we’re in. Nothing has stayed completely the same.

What attracted you to Barton Willmore?

For what they are. I think you get to a certain stage in your career where you know you’ve got one or two moves left in your career and there are only certain companies you even consider going to, especially if you don’t want to move. There are certain companies, because of the projects they’re involved in, because of the prestige and the client base that they’ve got, that you always hold in the highest regard and Barton Willmore were the only company I would have moved to from my previous role. So, when they approached me it was simply too good an opportunity to resist. If I was ever going to move, it was only going to be to Barton Willmore.

How do you think the NPPF will affect your clients?
It will affect clients in two ways:
Firstly, it will affect the way they do things – rather than being able to push a scheme through now they need to get support for the scheme, they need to work with the communities and even if it ultimately becomes unpopular they still need to go through a process and genuinely engage.

On a completely different note – the pro-growth agenda, which for the first time in 8-10 years is at the heart of government policy and development is being seen as the key to getting the economy moving. For the last 20/30 years various governments have tried but the treasury are now driving the agenda through and they appear to have been instrumental in what the NPPF says. So it’s all about making development happen for the good of the economy, whilst balancing social and environmental objectives. Again, that changes the whole approach, so actually local authorities should be positive and encouraging development and growth and if they’re not then developers can legitimately now take the moral high ground. For the first time, the development industry is the good guy – which is great. If developers go through the process doing all of the right things then there is no reason why they shouldn’t be getting the results they want, provided they seek the right advice of course.

What particular pressures do planners face in Wales?
I think planning in general in Wales has been left behind. In England a significant cultural change has started with the proposed NPPF – and in Scotland they have their own pro-growth agenda. In Wales, they are yet to get it and their answer has been to undertake five planning reviews that are going to take a number of years to come out. They should just be getting on with it. So I think the planning system in Wales is now starting to lag behind and I think as a result of that plus the fact that the market is seen as more fringe, there are less opportunities and less is going on.

If they’re not careful it’s a cycle that will go downwards and we’re working hard to break that cycle and pick it back up again. There are still opportunities but they are much more limited unfortunately. It is a small market area and there are massive challenges. It makes you work harder and you have to think much more laterally – and I think because you have a different planning system and a different way of doing things you’ve got to be a skilful operator to be successful. And that applies equally whether you’re a local authority planner, a private practice consultant or a developer.

Where do you see the best potential for growth in the current climate?
Geographically, London and the South East are going to recover from the market constraints much quicker than the rest of the country, which I suppose is pretty obvious. In terms of sectors, I think retail will be a growth area, I think housebuilding will be a steady growth area and I think energy, waste and infrastructure will also be growth areas as they become a bigger part of the challenges we face.

I think though that perhaps the biggest area of growth is more generally adopting all of the changes that we have been talking about and applying them and using them to make ourselves stand out, whatever the sector. Those that are in the front seat with respect to these changes will do very well and in this way it will sort the wheat from the chaff.

Aside from planning, what other interests do you have?
I’m currently finishing renovating my listed town house. I love to travel and in particular love going to Italy. I love my motorbike and I love mountains. A combination of all of these would be ideal! I have been told that in my next life I should be a motorbike riding mountain goat living in Italy!

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