Juliet Heap is a member of Build Studios, and is a town planning consultant who specialises in urban areas. Here she answers some questions on her professional background, her current work, and opinions on the challenges facing the built environment sector.
Tell us the background to Juliet Heap – how and why it started
I set up on my own as an independent planning consultant 5 years ago; at the time I was working for an engineering practice in central London, attempting to establish a planning team in their London office, which wasn’t really working very well for many reasons that I won’t go into here! Suffice to say I stuck at it for about a year before deciding I would look for something else. I put the feelers out to see what work was out there, but couldn’t find anywhere that I wanted to work, so decided I’d give it a go on my own and have never looked back.
Having studied in Bristol, with a short spell of study in Italy, I’ve been based in London, working as a planning consultant for 15 years, predominantly in the private sector but I also spent a year working for the City of London – however public sector life was not for me. I really enjoyed my time working for a regeneration firm based in East London, where I spent around 4 years, working on some great projects with a couple of fairly large Housing Associations and housebuilders across Newham and Tower Hamlets. It was great working for a company with a great ethos, alongside interesting people on projects that I felt made a difference. In setting up on my own, I was keen to continue working in a similar vein – collaboratively with people that enjoy and are good at what they do, working on interesting projects and trying to help clients and develop good quality schemes.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a few smaller projects on the go at the moment, including a vacant, listed pub in Kent, which the client is seeking to convert to residential use and remove a restrictive covenant on the residential Annexe; I’m providing the planning advice, working with a specialist heritage consultant who is providing heritage advice and guiding the options from a conservation perspective.
I’m hoping to submit an application which seeks to redevelop some garages on Lordship Lane in Southwark, to create 5 new flats by the end of the month and I’ve been working with a viability consultant and firm of architects advising a GP surgery in Dartford on a comprehensive redevelopment strategy, providing options in planning and design terms and culminating in advice which incorporates the potential costings and potential profit and valuations for different alternatives.
A slightly unusual one that I’m working on at the moment is with a community group and church, providing initial planning advice and support before moving forward to the preparation of an application to convert a former industrial warehouse to a mixed-use space comprising a church, events space, community facility and offices.
What has been your most exciting project to date?
That’s a difficult one to answer as I’ve worked on a number of interesting projects over the years including the first ever trampoline park in the UK (in Camberley) and the UK’s largest indoor bouldering centre (located in Harrow) which were both memorable for different reasons, however, I would probably say a Public Inquiry on behalf of a local authority at the end of 2017. I worked on behalf of the Council supporting a member overturn (i.e. the planning officer recommended approval but this decision was overturned at planning committee), which ultimately meant that the Council refused permission for a residential development on private sport grounds. I worked as the sole expert witness, giving evidence for the Council.
The most unusual part of this for me was supporting the member’s overturn to refuse planning permission, having spent the vast majority of my career working to promote development and try and get schemes through the planning process and it was the first appeal where I was defending the council’s position, not a developers! However, having looked at the case, we thought the Council had an argument, which we could defend and so took the case on.
It was probably the most difficult and challenging case I’ve worked on and was the first time I’ve had to sit on the witness stand, being cross-examined by a QC. Whilst it took over my life for several months, I really enjoyed the challenge, partly because we were the underdogs and weren’t expected to win. We really had to really pull out all the stops to give this project the best chance of success, partly because the Council had a fairly significant and historic undersupply of housing.
During the process of preparing for the Public Inquiry, an amended scheme was submitted to the Council, reducing the number of houses proposed and increasing the amount of open space. This planning application was appealed on the grounds of non-determination, then co-joined to the first appeal.
The Inspector refused planning permission for the first appeal, agreeing with the evidence presented by our team and the Council’s position that the loss of open space would not be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality. The scheme therefore conflicted with the Development Plan and paragraph 74 of the NPPF. However, the Inspector allowed the second appeal considering that it was better than the first and went some way to helping the council meet its housing need.
Whilst, I was really disappointed that the Inspector allowed the second appeal, which in my view wasn’t materially different nor any better than the first for a number of reasons, I was really chuffed to have turned around a case which was never going to be an easy win, to successfully defending the Council’s position for the appeal for which we were first instructed.
What is the best thing about basing your business at Build Studios?
I really enjoy being “in amongst it” and so having found myself spending a bit too much time working from home in the months before I moved here, it’s great having a bunch of like-minded people around me. It’s also interesting hearing what people are working on, what else is going on in the industry and some of the challenges/opportunities others are coming across.
It’s great having somewhere I can bring clients to for meetings, and also to have a bit of separation between work and home. I’m much more productive when I’m here than I am when I work at home all the time and I’m more likely to take on all those tasks you put off (making that difficult phone call particularly), as you can’t go and clean the kitchen cupboards or eat the contents of your fridge instead!
What do you think is the most significant challenge facing today’s built environment sector
Brexit is the key – albeit a little obvious – challenge for all of us at the moment in my view and is really going to be at the forefront of for a while yet. It has the potential to impact us from all sides – from government policy (particularly environmental standards), to the level of risk developers and banks are willing to take, to the cost of labour (particularly for the larger projects) and importing materials from Europe, to land values and house prices.
However, I think this is an opportunity for smaller business and independent consultants – particularly in the services side of the built environment – to be more competitive and give the larger firms a run for their money. We can be much more flexible, collaborative and competitive than some of the larger firms and have the freedom to change tact much faster than larger firms, who have higher overheads and greater bureaucracy.
More information regarding Juliet’s work can be found at https://julietheap.co.uk/.