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The Bartlet

Peter on planning perminssion

In this exclusive article, reproduced with permission from Show House Magazine, Gipping Homes director Peter Blemings talks all things planning…..

Over forty years ago I embarked upon a career in construction beginning with a school holiday job for a builder who lived next door, helping build a music room for the late, great John Peel following his relocation to Suffolk and believing I had completed a painting apprenticeship once I had finished one coat each of primer, undercoat and gloss on the entire plywood pigeon holes across the entire vaulted gable end wall.


Fortunately it was to house an enormous LP record collection, so rendering my works pretty much invisible other than the exposed edges.


Thirty five years later I returned to this village to build 40 houses on a development we named after John and with the show house opened by his wife Sheila and my first employer. 


Soon after, my company agreed to provide funding and building services to get the ‘John Peel Centre for Creative Arts’ underway, in nearby Stowmarket.


In 1979, aged 20 and following just three years of quantity surveying training, I set up my first building business, gradually diversifying into residential development, adopting a philosophy to stay small enough to retain control but utilising systems and efficiencies more often attributable to larger organisations. This combination has stood me in good stead ever since.  Subsequent diversification into joinery manufacture, merchanting, residential care, leisure and specialist brick repairs followed. 


The common link in all of these businesses was the employment and training of staff along with the need to constantly enter the lottery that is otherwise known as our planning system.


My experience of planners and planning committees is limited predominantly to rural Suffolk, the county that I was born and brought up in, although I have occasionally ventured ‘off patch’ including into Cambridge where we secured consent for sixteen properties, rather than the six envisaged, and where the planning experience was enlightening. 


The first committee meeting led to a deferment for a site inspection, at which point I concluded that members were struggling to understand what they were being asked to consider – a well-lit council chamber and poorly reproduced, out of focus, information from an ageing overhead projector, onto a screen seemingly miles away obviously did not help.  At the subsequent meeting I was allowed to set out a coloured site plan with crude models of both the proposals and the surrounding properties.


Members were clearly relieved to have this facility and clarify that the neighbours’ various concerns, including overlooking, were unfounded.  The application was approved by eight votes to one.  The committee Chair thanked me for my help, explaining that she did not think she was the only one who was unable to visualise how plans would look like in real life!


Local Authority members should be commended for their willingness to take on a broadly thankless role, but is this really the best way to manage development of our green (preferably Brownfield) land? 


It may not be ideal, but if my experiences are anything to go by, dealing with a committee of members it is much better than reliance on the majority of planning officers.  Accepting that there are exceptions, my general perception is that officers prefer the safe option starting off from a point of a glass half empty, and so look for reasons for refusal – and why not, taking into account that no one will ever know if a refused application would have worked whilst the occasional monstrosity that slips through is the topic of conversation for years, if not generations, to come.


Broadly speaking members take a balanced, common sense view, considering need and economic benefits as well as officer advice in respect of design, policy, although I am amazed at how often one officer’s interpretation is completely opposite to that of a colleague sitting on the next desk.


Quite recently I advised a client on a 60-bedroom residential care home facility which, when I was approached, was about to be refused under delegated powers.  We withdrew the application, made some minor improvements prior to resubmission and succeeded at committee by eight votes to nil against officers’ recommendation for refusal.  The facility is now full and is receiving numerous awards and accolades.


My planning successes may make me appear an expert, but to me it really is just a case of common sense, although I cannot see how the planning system will ever permit the expansion that all political parties advocate. 

My tongue in cheek solution is that If we have a need for 200,000 new homes – then this equates to an average of 308 properties per MP constituency, so perhaps we should just invite each MP to put forward where they want their allocation.


Currently we are developing a seafront, south facing, Grade 2* Listed former convalescence home site, with the main building utilising the base of a former Martello Tower as its foundations, and with original design and workmanship as good as anything I have ever seen.  Here, following early engagement with both the planners and the local community, I cannot fault the help, support and encouragement that we have received, thereby helping to preserve a legacy from the past for generations to come.


Once this latest project is complete I must contemplate what next.  Perhaps I will go from poacher to gamekeeper, stand for election to my district council and aspire to become planning committee chairman. Applicants would get the benefit of relevant knowledge and lots of experience but officers would have to be wary.