Go to a restaurant where there are 50 covers and 50 cooks but only one waiter and you won’t have a very good evening. That waiter could be Maurice Greene but you won’t be eating until midnight. In the same way, there are some major issues that need to be addressed in the planning system. Planners are all too often over-worked and under-rewarded and, as a result, the planning system is under serious pressure.
It appears there is little room in the planning system for planners to represent the interests of developers to the public. In several areas where our developments are likely to be great employment generators the hurdle of the local planning regime is making it harder than necessary to achieve. Sites have been allocated for development for years in local plans but our applications can often be thwarted by new, residential developers who have built housing stock close by and, because solicitors do not tend to do local-plan checks, homeowners have been upset that industrial buildings are intended nearby.
In such instances some sympathy has to be felt for the local residents but the reality is that they did not check to find out what was to be built around them.
In order to allay such fears as much as possible we have put in a lot of time to establish outline consent. We have provided bus trips around our existing ProLogis Parks for planners and councillors to show them that we are producing developments that will be an asset to the community, and not old-fashioned piecemeal industrial estates. We regularly undertake much pre-application consultation with local residents to outline the benefits that development will bring, and we regularly improve access to our sites even before we receive detailed consent in order to enhance the local environment for the local community.
A case in point is our project in Peterborough. The scheme already had outline consent for development uses; it is a former brickworks and hence brownfield in development terms. It consisted of huge holes in the ground backfilled with pulverised fuel ash and topsoil over that. Despite being allocated for development for at least ten years we had a hard time explaining this to local homeowners who thought it was a greenfield site.
Another problem at Peterborough was that the allocation met the kind of demand you would expect of the early 1990s – 4,650sq m (50,000sq ft) buildings for B1/B2/B8 use.
We have had to adapt this consent to the kind of demand we are experiencing now, which is for much bigger single buildings. However, through a positive relationship with the local planning team, we were able to satisfy them as to the nature of development and a new 65,100sq m (700,000sq ft) facility for Debenhams is nearing completion.
Developers have to do far more to achieve a planning consent than in days gone by through consultation prior to submission of the planning application. We are involved in a 35-acre project at Hayes, West London that was formerly the Government Records Office, owned and operated by the Ministry of Defence. The records are being relocated to Swadlincote, Derbyshire, into a building we are developing for TNT, which won the PFI contract to manage the archive.
Since September last year, we have met local MP John McDonnell twice, the ward members, the GLA members, the local authority’s planning officers, the GLA planners, the local Chamber of Commerce, other local interest groups and we have held a public exhibition. We are now revising our plans accordingly, including switching one road away from existing housing which impacts on the amount of space we can ultimately provide on site.
With the production of the environmental statement, the whole exercise has cost around £200,000, and all prior to submission of the application. Planning department staffing issues and a change in procedure brought about by central government led to these costly and complex applications. There is a fundamental shortage of planning staff in the UK and a high turnover of that staff, especially in the South-east. They are often rushed off their feet yet still have to meet government targets for processing applications.
Our experience at Hayes is that many of the planning team we have met so far have been on contract work. They are good at their jobs but relatively transient as many are in the UK for relatively short periods of time. I think that is symptomatic of the fact that many planning jobs are better paid in the private sector where there is much less bureaucracy.
There is also a wide range of differences in the way planning staff deal with planning applications. This is partly a procedural issue and a partly down to the different ways logistics is perceived in different parts of the country.
In some parts of the country, jobs in B8 do not have the same importance as jobs in B2. Yet, B8 is a major employer. Our B8 buildings generate about one job per 93sq m (1,000sq ft). The one or two B2 buildings we have on our sites actually generate fewer jobs, mainly because of automation.
There is a trend today towards combining staffing with automation in buildings. However, some of the early total automation solutions did not work. Tesco, for example, has a Tibbett & Britten building it uses for clothes distribution. It tried automation but has now gone back to a more labour-intensive but highly efficient system. It has basic racking with boxes and people on carts. Staff members have barcode readers on their forefingers and they only have to point at boxes as they bring them in and take them out.
Another issue we face also comes from perception rather than reality. Planners are often under pressure to fill up zones with what they think are