Careers Advice: Understanding key aspects of scheme negotiation

Written by: Mike Kiely
Published On: 12 Jun 2017

Handshake

Negotiation is at the heart of what we do as planners, particularly those who work in development management (DM). So it is vital that you both learn the skills and understand the dynamics of the design process within which negotiation takes place.  

If you go on a negotiation technique training course, you will usually only get half the story. That’s not to criticize those courses - they tend to concentrate on the negotiation event - but rather to point out that negotiating a planning application, especially a large development, is a very different process.  

You will be told that win-win is better than positional bargaining, that you must have your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and so on. I don’t intend to touch on all that stuff in the limited space I have here.

What I want to convey is the importance of three things:  

1. Understanding the design process within which negotiation takes place

2. Budgets and timing  

3. Your role in the process  

Big schemes are complex things to design. There are many components and the architect will not design them all. There will be a team of different specialists, all having their inputs, and the architect’s job will usually include co-ordinating these various inputs. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has produced a Plan of Work (www.ribaplanofwork.com) to help architects and other design professions work through a complex design systematically.

You may have heard of RIBA Design Stages. It is important that you are familiar with these and that you understand the importance of being there at RIBA Stage 0: Strategic Definition. This is when the business case and brief are identified. You want to encourage the developer to talk to you at this stage because what needs to happen is that your council’s brief (the development plan etc) needs to align with the client’s brief so that the design process starts off on the correct basis. All too often the initial contact is left till much later in the design process where a concept design has been produced (RIBA Stage 2) and you have to negotiate amendments. Not only do you have to persuade the developer’s design team to redesign their project, but the process to date will have cost them several hundreds of thousands of pounds on a big development. Not really the best way to approach a pre-application negotiation process.  

All projects will have a budget. Essentially it will be what the developer thinks they can sell the finished product for (or an estimate of the value of the rental stream) minus their risk profit. Everything has to come out of that sum, including the local planning authority’s requirements: affordable housing, CIL & s106. What you do will have an impact on the numbers. For example, the longer the process takes, the more expensive it will be and the earlier you require expenditure (eg a junction improvement) the more it will cost because of financing requirements and cash flow issues. If you want to be a good viability negotiator, you must understand the dynamics of the process you are working within and how you can use it to your advantage, but equally how it can work against you if you don’t understand it. Always remember that the numbers produced in viability appraisals by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) folk are not facts. They are systematic estimates of the cost of building something that is only half designed and the value of it in a market that is at least three years away.

Finally, how much input into the design process should we have as development managment planners. I have heard colleagues say, “It’s not my job to design the developer’s scheme for them”. In my view that shows a misunderstanding of the design process. It is your job to input as a DM planner into the design process. Your input will be greater in the earlier RIBA stages than the later ones (ie RIBA Stage 3, which is when a planning application is usually made). If you see your job as making sure that the architect has the right brief and then you keep out of his/her way so that they can work their creative magic, you will not be far off the mark!  

Mike Kiely is chair of the Planning Officers Society and independent public sector consultant