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Man in Property Interview - Paul ClarkeBy: Richenda Oldham

Paul Clarke, Bidwells

Paul Clarke is a Partner in the Planning team at Bidwells. He has nearly 40 years experience in Town and Country Planning, of which 25 have been spent in Local Government. Paul provides specialist town planning advice for public and private sector clients in all development areas of the country. He currently leads, assembles and manages multi-disciplinary teams to promote development and regeneration projects. Paul is a golf and cruise addict.

What do you like best about your current job?

I like the variety that the job gives me in terms of the types of project that we have to deal with, the different areas in which they are located and the different people we act for. I never cease to be amazed at the different types of proposals that we are asked to submit for planning permission and the aspirations that clients have to develop land.

What do you enjoy most about property?

For me, the greatest attraction of the property industry is its ability to make a real difference in economic, social or environmental terms. Done properly, changing the characteristics of a building through its use or external appearance or simply in developing land itself can make a fundamental difference to a particular area.

What inspired you to go into planning?
The redevelopment of the London Docklands really inspired me to go in to planning. I first saw the London Docklands when it was still warehouses and there were Alsatian guard dogs everywhere on chains and the whole area was very derelict. The change that occurred over a really short period was incredible. I wanted to get into a profession that helped make this type of thing occur.

What is the best career advice you have ever been given?

Make sure you don’t just drive past a site when visiting a site. Get out of the car and walk round the site even if it's raining or snowing and make an effort to understand its characteristics and how it relates to the area. If you don't, you potentially will miss something and it will come back to haunt you.

What are the main challenges you face today as a planner?

A planner today has to keep pace with a wide range of changes that are occurring to the planning system itself in either economic terms or through the legislation changes undertaken by the Coalition Government. You need to have an ability to engage with a wide range of different people who have different aspirations or requirements from what you are proposing. Engaging with everyone who is involved in the project is a key element to ensuring that everyone achieves a common goal.

If you hadn't become a planner, what else would have liked to do?

I would like to have become:

A Captain or Navigation Officer of a Destroyer in the Royal Navy;
A Proprietor of a house of ill repute in either Marrakesh or Istanbul;
A Head Gardener of an Estate in charge of a walled garden where I would need to produce all the food for the house;
A professional golfer.

How different is planning now to when you started?

Many things have changed since I started in planning, the first piece of equipment I had to master was a photocopier where you had to produce a negative in order to achieve a positive copy. Fortunately within a week, this piece of equipment got changed as I never got to grips with how to use the equipment. Today I need to consider whether our printers are capable of producing an Environmental Impact Assessment which may be over a 1,000 pages long and is capable of printing colour and ensuring that the diagrams are in the right place.

The world inevitably is running at a faster pace and whereas there was an ability to respond to a letter in two to three days, I am very fortunate if I have an ability to respond to an e-mail or a text within two to three hours. Planning is cyclical and its inevitable that periodically it revisits issues that have come about through economic cycles, however, I believe that we have a significantly better planning system than we had back in the early 1970s.

In the early 1970s planning was administered by County Councils and was too remote, and whilst you could argue it now gets embroiled in the minutiae of development at times, it's better than it was.

How has the recession affected planning?

The recession has probably injected some realism into planning generally. Delivery is everything and planning has gone from ignoring or distancing itself from the costs of development to putting the issue at the core. Inevitably, the recession has caused delay and frustration but the willingness to bring forward development proposals still remains. Those who wish to undertake development has changed to create a wider mix of clients who we deal with. In addition to national house builders, who have become more circumscript over their exposure in the market place, there is private equity finance and institutions who are keen to take a long term view on their likely returns on development. The costs on delivering development still remain high and there is a growing issue regarding the delivery of infrastructure and whilst Councils will be using such mechanisms as CIL and Section 106, there is only so much money that can go around. The most successful schemes that I have seen which deliver growth in a sustainable manner are those where there is a joint public and private initiative in its delivery.

What difference will the final abolition of regional planning strategies make?

I am not entirely convinced that the abolition of the RSSs is going to make a fundamental difference to the way in which housing is delivered. Whilst great play was made by the Coalition Government that there were top down targets imposed on Councils, in reality, much of those targets were set by District Councils themselves providing information to the regional Councils. The need for housing has not gone away, and as a County we never seem to achieve the 240,000 units we require per annum.

What are your views on the Chancellor's Help to Buy scheme? Will it help the housing market?

It is agreed generally that Britain is facing a housing crisis and that first time buyers have very little opportunity or prospect of affording a place to live by themselves, trapped in living with relatives or in insecure, poor quality rental housing owned by landlords trying to make a quick buck. We need to encourage confidence in the marketplace, however, I am not entirely convinced that the 'Help to Buy Scheme' will do this. In essence, we need to encourage more housing building to occur and simply creating a new generation of cut price loans I don't believe is the only solution. First time buyers need cheaper homes, not bigger loans and I think we need to encourage more housing building to occur directly rather than allow people to be committed to more debt.

What are the main issues preventing development in rural areas?

I think it's important that we recognise that the economic recession does not simply effect our urban areas and that rural parts of the country are suffering equalling as much. There are around 10 million people who live in rural areas within the UK and around 505 thousand businesses which represents approximately 28% of all businesses in the UK. We need to ensure that we provide support to our rural areas and think creatively about how selective development can help sustain village life. We need to take advantage of the consumer wanting to purchase produce locally and encourage rural tourism. One of the big issues in dealing with rural areas is the supply of broadband and mobile infrastructure which would provide significant benefits to these areas.

How can the relationship between developers and planning authorities be improved?

Having working in both sectors, I am of the firm opinion that both the public sector and private sector have a role to play in delivering sustainable growth. Often there are preconceived ideas on both sides as to how they operate and we need to break down these barriers if we are to make any progress. Developers want to see consistency and transparency in any decisions that Councils make as well as getting them to understand the relative costs involved in delivering growth. Developers need to understand that in the future Councils will have very limited resources in their planning departments and there will be a need to work with the Councils in order to achieve infrastructure improvements to support growth. In fairness, there is a wider range of consultees and stakeholders involved in the planning process that need to acknowledge how they can assist in delivering growth.

What are the emerging trends you are seeking in the retail and leisure sectors?

Clearly, the overriding trend is towards online sales which are beginning to dominate the retail market. In a relatively short space of time, major stores are looking to make significant changes to their stores to entice customers through the door. Should this trend continue, I have no doubt there will be significant changes in the high street and there will be a greater range of smaller bespoke retail units. The larger retail units that will survive will adapt to give their customers a more wider ranging experience including coffee bars, room layouts for furniture and home ware and fashion shows. I suspect that generally in towns and city centres there will be an even greater mix of retail and leisure uses which will need to be reflected in the uses stipulated by Councils in their Local Plan Policies. Whilst traditionally Councils have sought to protect their high streets through restrictive policies, I suspect that there are greater economic forces at work here which may significantly change the characteristics of some of our traditional shopping areas.

What do you do to unwind after a hard week at work?

I usually take out any frustrations I have on an innocent golf ball and take a long walk around a golf course before retiring to have a well-earned pint of beer. I am a keen rugby supporter and I try to get to as many matches as I can during the year where I explain to others that despite my age I gave up the game far too early. Otherwise I am an avid reader of books and sometimes get let loose to do some gardening although that seems to coincide with similar skills that I have in playing golf. 

Features May 2013

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