It seems obvious, but when you are trying to prioritise different tasks as a consultant, it is important to prepare thoroughly so you are not caught off guard in any discussions. Make sure you have looked at your files thoroughly before you make that phone call. Have you researched other similar cases that you might be able to refer to? Are you up to date with policy developments?
Most Local Planning Authorities are under significant resource pressures, which in turn can limit scope for negotiation. It is becoming more common that such discussions are taking place at pre-application stage. I am finding increasingly that I am been asked to assist on what I would consider to be more straightforward work, in order to engage and establish lines of communication with Councils.
How to Communicate
Consider what form of communication might be best for your purpose. Can the matter be resolved by a quick phone call? Are officers more likely to be exercise flexibility through more informal medium such as a phone conversation rather than a written letter? Do you want to commit to a position in writing? It may be best to scope this out first with a simple phone call.
Build up your knowledge of different authorities and know who you are negotiating with. Not only does this have benefits in terms of getting to know policies, you can build up working relationships with Council staff so that they feel more comfortable negotiating with you. Who is the right person to negotiate with, in terms of the seniority of staff and any specialist input required? Having worked at one authority for twelve years, it has struck me how differently Councils approach negotiation, even within across those in nearby geographical areas and with similar political balances.
Establish a dialogue. Dialogue is a two way process and helps ensure that you are kept informed of any thoughts the officer may have. This helps ensure that both sides are acting proactively.
What is your Strategy?
The identification of common ground is key to convincing Council officers that your client’s development is something that is right for their area. Try and understand the Council’s position. Everyone’s time is precious, are there issues that can be put aside so that you can focus on the areas of dispute?
It is important to identify areas where you can compromise, and those that there is no scope to negotiate. If there are fundamental differences then a change of strategy may be needed. Always try to have a back up plan if the authority is less willing than you expect to negotiate. It may be that you have to offer up concessions and it is a good idea to have thought this through in case further compromise is necessary to achieve your goals.
If you can avoid it, do not offer up compromises too early in the process, as this will unnecessary weaken your negotiating position.
Be realistic with timescales. Sometimes you will find that a matter you consider to be simple can result in long drawn out negotiations. This is especially the case where multiple agencies are involved. Try to make contact early in the process so that application deadlines cannot be used as an obstacle.
Manage client expectations. If you know the authority you are going to be negotiating with are unlikely to be receptive then allow plenty of time for lengthy negotiations and be realistic about what you hope to achieve. Be clear in your advice to clients so that there can be no ambiguity.
It is rarely beneficial to negotiate over-aggressively and I have found that best results are achieved where arguments are made assertively but courteously and based on robust evidence. Remember that you are negotiating with another planning professional.
Graham Robinson is associate director at consultancy DLP Planning and is a former area planning manager at a London authority.