When Lord Wolfson, chief executive of Next, criticised Sheffield planners for rejecting an out-of-town store that would have created 125 jobs, it struck a chord with other companies who are often forced to fight prolonged and costly battles to achieve their expansionary goals.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was introduced last March, is intended to make the UK planning system far simpler to understand, while breaking down planning obstacles, and freeing up opportunities for 'sustainable' development.
It sounds as if it was tailor-made for growing companies, keen to expand premises or open new businesses, but the reality is that myriad complexities of the planning system is forcing them to call in outside help. As Peter Bingle, director of Terrapin Communications, puts it: 'This is one public affairs specialism which is in very good shape.'
Indeed, it seems there's never been more need for developers to take their public affairs extremely seriously, and get on board those who know exactly who to talk to, at the right time and in the right way, to get the job done. And if anything government legislation only looks likely to make that role ever more critical.
The obstacles facing developers
The NPPF enacts the planning component of the Localism Act 2011.This means that while it may promote the cause of developers, it also aims to take power from central government and put it into the hands of local authorities and communities. This includes giving communities a greater say in the development of their local area (albeit within certain parameters), including, for example, being able to use neighbourhood development plans to influence where new homes, offices and shops are built, and how planning permission is granted.
This shift represents both an opportunity and a challenge for developers. It could galvanise the community to contribute ideas for local investment - better guaranteeing the success of a planning proposal. But it could also increase opposition from local groups who feel they have nothing if not more power to mobilise resistance.
Kevin Craig, managing director of political lobbying and media relations company PLMR, says: 'There are few things more important to people than the place they call home. Development projects can threaten this, they can bring change - even the most benign development project can bring upset. As a result, even the most reasonable, beneficial and urgently necessary developments will face local resentment.'
Indeed, the larger the brand behind the development, or the more it seems to encroach on green space, the more hostile the sentiment is likely to be, fuelled by a popular image of rapacious developers riding rough-shod over once idyllic neighbourhoods.
'With government shifting to localism, we help clients with their public consultations, helping local communities as well as local authorities understand and help shape proposals,' says Wendy Blair, the lead partner for property and planning issues at Pagefield. '[Planning] proposals don't come fully formed any more. The more support you can get through consultation and the more you can bring the community into the application then the more likely it will be a success.'
This matches the experience of Sue Bailey, managing director at PR and community affairs specialist Gough Bailey Wright, who counts Sainsbury's among her clients.
When a planning application for a new store in Dorridge in the West Midlands was rejected due to lack of parking, extra traffic and store size, it forced the supermarket group to reconsider its initial proposal but also to work with the local community to explain its rationale.
'We eventually went back with a smaller scheme and we did workshops with the local community where we invited a very vociferous anti-group to come along and be part of it too. In the end we got planning permission because we worked with the local councillors, community, and the anti-group, and made big changes as a result of local community involvement,' explains Bailey.
But local campaign group, Dorridge Residents Opposed to Village Superstore (DROVS),which objected to the size of the store, claimed online that the PR work of Gough Bailey was 'carefully stage managed'. Bailey considers that developers who brining in dedicated communication teams risk such criticism, but argues that the community work was 'genuine' and resulted in a satisfactory compromise solution.
'Developers shouldn't just think they're right. Their schemes can be improved by local people and local councillors giving feedback. In many cases it works very well and ensures the development is successful for both the community and developers, in terms of getting a good return,' she explains. 'I think damage sometimes happens when developers think they know it all, but don't know the local area or community concerns and just assume they're always right.'
Untangling local politics
Not that the local community is the only stakeholder that presents obstacles. Local politics too can be a minefield. '[Problems arise when organisations] don't undertake sufficient research into how a particular local authority works. Is it run by officers or councillors? What is the power structure? Who takes the lead on major regeneration projects? Are the local residents and amenity groups strong or feeble, respected or seen as a nuisance? Until these questions have been fully answered there are likely to be problems. Our job is to ensure that we provide those answers,' says Bingle.
'Every local authority is structured slightly differently, and the way they deal with planning applications varies hugely,' agrees Bailey. A big city planning authority, such as Birmingham, is quite easy because they operate as one authority, she explains. That means there's a planning department with clear contacts. But smaller towns, such as Warwick, will have a district authority which is the planning authority and a county council, which deals with highway issues, meaning developers need to address different tiers. In rural areas, it gets more complex still as parish councils need to be considered..
'Sometimes developers don't appreciate the local issues in an area and that's where public affairs specialists come in because they know how things operate,' adds Bailey.
Local authorities currently represent the biggest challenge to Domino's Pizza's expansion plans. While the pizza chain can face resistance - a proposed branch in the Kent market town of Faversham was abandoned because of local opposition -it finds residential communities, in the main, responsive and supportive.
Director of communications Georgina Wald explains: 'A large percentage of our customers want us. We have well run stores that create employment and we're open all day, so unlike some other takeaways we don't blight the high street by being closed half the time. We've even had people set up Facebook pages requesting us to come to their town.'
But the local authorities can be more problematic. 'Many local councillors are not customers so they don't understand how our operations work,' she says. 'We are tarred with the fast food brush, and there's a misconception that we create litter and anti-social behaviour even though 75 per cent of our business is delivered to people in their homes.'
Wald is also concerned that planning is being used as a tool to tackle obesity as opposed to appropriate investment in 'proper long-term health programmes'. For example, a growing number of local authorities have imposed planning restrictions on hot food takeaway developments around schools. 'We think this is a false economy because they don't restrict sweet shops or petrol stations that sell crisps etcetera which are much cheaper and more attractive to school children,' says Wald. Domino's has been able to get around such issues by putting in place certain conditions. In one branch, the carry-out area does not open until 4pm so that they can continue to offer a delivery service while avoiding accusations of targeting school children. But it's clearly still a sensitive issue. 'All we want is dialogue,' says Wald. 'That's the main thing.'
Facing these complexities, it is obvious why public affairs practitioners increasingly play a part in the planning system. 'We identify the politicians and officers (civil servants) important to the success of your application. We hold public exhibitions. We draft all correspondence. We identify who is most likely to cause you grief. We advise on how you communicate - that is, what you say when you say it,' says Craig.
Overcoming political obstacles might include, Craig explains, advising on early stage meetings with council leaders and senior officers, producing briefing packs to politicians after the planning application has been submitted, direct councillor contact (in line with codes of conduct), and advising on the response to a planning committee report.
The fine line
There is little doubt public affairs specialists are becoming ever more important to developers. But they will also need to act with caution. If companies are perceived to be buying powerful PR expertise to unfairly influence local politicians and communities, then resentment and resistance to development will only grow. For the UK's sustainable development, the relationship between public affairs professionals, developers, and the communities in which they operate, may yet prove critical. There will be many interested parties watching this space - and hoping it can work.