Meet the people behind Berrys – Val Coleby

Published September 28th, 2016

This week we are interviewing Berrys Planning Consultant, Val Coleby. Val has over 25 years of experience in both public and private sector planning. Her extensive planning knowledge covers both development control planning and planning policy. She also has a good understanding of heritage and conservation matters, rural planning issues and farm diversification opportunities.

What does a normal day at Berrys look like?
I generally try to plan out my week’s work in advance but I can guarantee it won’t go exactly as I expect by any means. There are always a great variety of calls and emails coming in and colleagues wanting advice for clients on planning matters. In such a multi-disciplinary firm such as Berrys there are any number of things that can come up from planning advice for commercial premises, housing developments, rural diversification projects and conversions of all sorts of building to different uses. I guess it’s good that other professionals in the firm have us on hand. It’s not all office work of course, we get to put our wellies on and go out on site too.

What makes Berrys different in your opinion?
It’s a great place to work. There are so many skills here and I have a great respect for my professional colleagues. I think that’s what makes us a good team; we hold each other in high esteem and consequently set high standards for each other. I’d hate to let my colleagues down. Client care is also high on the list and we have a number of clients that have been with us for many years, which is very satisfying. As a firm we are growing, changing and developing other complementary parts of a rural advisory business, but the fundamental client care focus remains the foundation.

What aspect of your work do you enjoy most?
Planning is essentially a problem-solving role and it’s this element that I enjoy the most. Planning legislation is continually changing and planning policy is constantly updating at both a national governmental level, at the local level through District Council’s Local Plans and now through the new level of planning introduced in the last few years, Neighbourhood Plans. It’s a challenge just keeping up with the pace of change as the Government tinkers with the planning system in an effort to continue to stimulate growth in the building industry and thereby boost the economic recovery.

Have you got any funny/unusual stories that you’ve come across in your career at Berrys?I was part of a professional team at a very formal planning inquiry. Think barristers, cross-examination, presiding inspector… that sort of thing. Not the sort of place for a funny story you would think. Our specialist design consultant, let’s call him Colin (not his real name) was being grilled by the opposition barrister on detailed issues on the planning drawings, when suddenly poor Colin’s glasses broke clean in half. After a few moments of struggling on, holding the spectacles together with both hands whilst trying to answer pointed questions and reading the plans at the same time, the Inspector took pity on him and called a recess. One of the team helpfully provided some super glue and the glasses were duly stuck together and placed carefully on a table to dry in the team’s appointed meeting room. We continued to discuss the case until the recess period was over and Colin could then return to the cross-examination he was enduring but now with his mended spectacles. He reached out to put them on only to find the glasses had also firmly glued themselves to the table. Ooops! They came free eventually!

What is your biggest achievement so far?
I suppose the biggest achievements are considered to be the biggest jobs, the large scale housing developments that achieve planning consent or the big urban commercial developments and whilst these are great and challenging jobs I get most satisfaction from work for individual clients where the seemingly small successes can make a big difference to people’s lives, their homes or businesses. For instance, we just gained consent for a conversion of an old barn to a house under the new permitted development rules issued by the Government, which allowed a young couple to be able to afford a house near their parents in the countryside where a brand new house would have been near impossible to achieve, let alone afford. At the other end of the scale, a lovely retired couple had lived in their countryside property for a number of years, which was subject to an unconventional (and in my view unreasonable) restrictive occupancy condition. This would have prevented them from selling the property anywhere near its true value. This weighed heavily on them as they could foresee a difficult old age in the future. We got the tie lifted and I could see on their faces just how much it meant.

What do you need to do if you want to change the use of a property, for example from agricultural to retail?
Best thing to do is it to get the professionals involved at the outset. I guess you think I would say that wouldn’t I, but there really can be complications and there are different routes to achieve this aim. For example, if the permitted development route were taken you would need to pass specific criteria, in addition to which this route can take away other permitted development rights applicable to a farm which may be important to you or your farming business. In some cases you might not need planning consent at all. At Berrys, as a multi-disciplinary firm, we can take into account the strategy of the farming business as a whole when looking at the best solution.

What’s changing in the world of planning?
In May this year, the Housing and Planning Act received royal assent has brought in a number of provisions in order to boost the supply of housing such as, starter homes, planning permission in principle and vacant building credit to name but a few. What this space will show is how these new provisions will work in practice.

How long does it take before planning permission comes through?
It never ceases to surprise me how long it takes to achieve planning consent. There are different timescales for different types of application. For example, a prior approval application (e.g. a barn conversion to residential) must take no more the 56 days from the submission to the Council. For minor planning applications, the Council has 8 weeks to determine the application but very often will take longer. For major applications (e.g. developments of 10 or more dwellings or 0.5ha or more) the time period is 13 weeks but again this often takes longer. If the application is subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment a 16 week limit applies. Councils can also refuse to validate an application if they consider insufficient information has been submitted and the clock does not start until they have all the information they consider is required.

Back in the dark days, when I worked for a Local Planning Authority (which shall remain nameless) as a planning officer I would generally not receive an application file from the administration section until the 8 week period had already expired! So I do have some sympathy with the officers where the Council is not supporting and appropriately funding the department.