Jennifer Ross: looking forward, looking back

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Previously, the Tibbalds blog featured the newest recruit to the Tibbalds’ team and reported on his first week at work. This week Jennifer Ross, one of the founding directors of the practice is departing on a four month sabbatical to cycle the west coast of America. Before flying across the Atlantic to start her journey she takes a moment to reflect on 30 years of working as a planner in London, her time at Tibbalds through its various incarnations and her thoughts for the adventure ahead.

Opinion piece

Preparing for take-off!

…So here I am sitting on the runway waiting to take off to fly to Vancouver to begin a four month break from the world of town planning consultancy in order to ride a bike some 3- 4,000 km down the west coast of America.

Preparation to make this trip possible has taken some significant thought and planning (obviously!) and began some five years ago when the four founding directors of the practice started to think about the future, how we might plan for succession and the longevity of the practice.

We all agreed that we did not want to go down the route of selling the business and becoming part of a large multi-disciplinary practice, nor did we feel that it was appropriate to ask more junior staff to buy into the practice. We needed to find another way and so began our journey to Tibbalds becoming majority owned by an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT).

With support from both external business advisors on helping to prepare the whole team for the transition to employee ownership and the input of Graham Nuttall OBE on the legal nuts and bolts of it this significant step is now complete and we are in good shape to enable the business to continue to flourish and grow.

The transition to an EOT owned business and all the associated work around building a team for the future has also given the founding directors a bit of space to make choices.

From the outset of the process I said when the EOT was in place that I would like the opportunity to take some time out to ride my bike, to visit places I have always wanted to visit, to reflect on what I have been doing in planet planning and to think about what next!

Looking forward

So here I am about to pack up my bike and disappear into the sunset for a short while. Of course I am excited about the journey ahead. I am also feeling a little apprehensive and a little melancholy about what I am leaving behind.

For those who know me and my fellow directors you will know that we have put a significant amount of time and energy into ensuring that the practice through all aspects of our work delivers on our mantra: to make great places happen.

Our approach and philosophy was , I think, summed up very well in the recent New London Architecture article ‘top of their game’. Reflecting on what we have done, I feel very lucky that we have been asked by a whole range of public and private sector clients to work on some truly amazing projects and with some great people. I am also delighted that so many of our projects have also won some fantastic awards. 2018 has been a particularly good one; what with our submission on Velocity winning the National Infrastructure Commission’s Oxford to Cambridge placemaking competition; success with Bourne Estate at the Housing Design Awards, five RIBA regional (London) awards; five NLA awards and a commendation for the Planning Awards best planning practice.

Bourne Estate
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As a result of all of the above, whilst I can smile, knowing that Tibbalds is in safe hands and has a sound future ahead of it I am also a bit sad to leave some great people and projects behind. I know, however that this time out will be a good thing. Planning as a profession and the delivery of good planning is a very demanding, intense and often fraught process. The pressures on development, the squeeze on resources, the ongoing drive for viable development and trying to keep a hold on build costs makes the process of delivering good, high quality development an extremely challenging one.

Success requires energy, tenacity, a positive attitude, confidence and the ability to negotiate, good humour and an endless supply of optimism. I think have a shed load of all of the above BUT even I am finding the going tough and in many ways as the complexity and pressures increase I think we have all started to forget what we are all here for – ultimately we in the property profession are charged with making good and healthy places for this generation and future generations to live, work and play. In addition and as our natural resources become depleted we need to find better and more sustainable ways to plan for growth in manner which has minimal impact on the planet.

So to go away, rest and reflect on the story so far and to think about what is next and how I can best contribute to what I believe planning is about is a special and generous opportunity.

Looking back

30 years in planning!?

On the one hand I can barely contemplate that amount time and on the other it has gone so fast. I can remember clearly Francis Tibbalds speaking to a group of planning students at Newcastle University about this thing called urban design, that place where architects, planners, engineers, property professionals bring their collective skills together to make great places. I decided there and then that this was the person I wanted to work with and for and this thing called ‘Urban Design’ was the space I wanted to work within.

It took a while to get to a place where I felt able to join the then snappily named Tibbalds, Colborne, Karski, Williams, Monroe (we had not invented acronyms back then!). I felt I needed to gain a bit of experience before applying to join. After a stint as a bike courier in the United States (there is a theme emerging) and work with GVA and RTP (now PBA) I felt I was ready to join Tibbalds. I applied, got an interview and told Francis why I thought I should join. I was a bit worried that they would not think me creative enough and so took a papier-mâché pot I had made to the interview with me. A little naïve maybe but it made my interviewers smile and I got the job!

I joined at a time when the Welsh Development Agency was in full swing and there was much regeneration work in Wales. I was sent to the Welsh Valleys to work on a number of strategies. Quite challenging when you can’t speak Welsh and everything had to be done through interpreters. However I must have done something right as after the completion of one commission I was asked to judge the annual best cow in show competition at a county show…..apparently a big privilege! So as well as learning a lot about regeneration work I learnt about what makes a top show class cow!

Eventually my spell in Wales came to an end and I returned to London to find we had won masterplanning competitions in Beirut and Malta and so began a period of overseas work, which was fascinating and challenging. We were lucky as this work came when the property industry in this country was in deep recession in the mid nineties and this overseas work carried us through.

This period was followed by a series of long term, large scale, multi landowner masterplans and joint working with local authorities to deliver major change in the Isle of Dogs, City Road Basin in Islington, Wisbech, Hampshire, Ilford and Ealing. All great experiences and a big learning curve in terms of how to co-ordinate, manage and put in place shared, deliverable plans for comprehensive change.

Elephant & Castle Development Framework
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Then came probably the most challenging and rewarding job of my career: the production of a development framework and OAPF for the Elephant and Castle. Our appointment in the very early 2000s followed the decision by Southwark Council not to appoint Southwark Land Regeneration (SLR) as development partner. Chris Horn, the then development director of the project asked us to join the master planning team to deliver a public sector vision and planning guidance for the area. A massive challenge and undertaking. Working with an A-team comprising Foster/ MAKE, Space Syntax, Gehl, Martha Schwartz, Brian Dunlop and SDG we unpicked the area and set a new vision for how the area might reinvent itself and overcome the many constraints it faced.

Decathlon site for Sellar in Canada Water
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The project grew in its scope as the team moved from plan making into enabling delivery and we got involved the identification of sites to accommodate the Heygate decant, public engagement on different aspects of the change programme, preparation of design guidance for a number of other sites in the area, providing planning advice to Southwark on a number of early schemes and the provision of input into the developer selection and evaluation process. Our involvement finished once Lend Lease were appointed as preferred partner. BUT what an experience, we loved it and learned so much.

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This process was followed by a series of large scale and smaller scale, private sector led planning projects, including the multi-phased mixed development, incorporating the redevelopment of the Decathlon site for Sellar in Canada Water, the award winning Brentford Lock West development in Hounslow (the final phase of which we have just submitted after some eight years of work), the redevelopment of several high density mixed development sites on the Isle of Dogs and a long winded and very controversial planning saga associated with the eventual redevelopment of the White Collar Factory at Old Street Roundabout.

White Collar Factory, Old Street Roundabout, Islington
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In parallel with these private sector jobs we started getting involved with public sector estate regeneration work. This has proved to be one of the more satisfying and rewarding parts of our work. We have spent many hours with existing communities, developing and sharing design ideas and seeking consensus for the process of redevelopment. Major Projects have or are being been delivered in Hackney, Lambeth, Southwark, Enfield, Tower Hamlets and Camden. All of the projects ended up being supported by the vast majority of residents who live there, many new and replacement homes have been delivered and many of the schemes have been award winning.

Based on the estate regeneration work undertaken we have spoken to a number of journalists and asked them why they don’t focus on the positive side of estate regeneration and report on the seriously good work being done by many boroughs around London in the face of stringent cuts. Maybe not such a good story but the negativity thrown at many council led regeneration projects is hard going for those of us who spend our time working closely with residents to create new affordable homes and good places to live. My plea would be to listen to the many people that have been given new homes as a result of these regeneration projects.

In addition to the above there has been a few other diverse projects: a mosque for the Shreeswaminaryn Hindu community in Barnet, a country house in Bruton; a number of retirement housing projects for PegasusLife; hotels and offices and mixed developments which have enabled the delivery of new schools, community and major leisure facilities in Islington, Hackney, Camden and Harrow.

Each and every one of these projects has been challenging and have pushed the boundaries of our development planning system. All of them have, however been underpinned by good design, which quite frankly has enabled us to push planning boundaries and persuade others that be that planning permission should be granted.

The business of planning

In addition to the work itself there has been our identity and how we wanted to operate as a business.

Our vision for a design led planning practice led Hilary, Jane, Sue and I to the conclusion in 2002/03 that we should create our own practice and break away from the architectural team that formed the other part of the existing business at the time. We felt that this would give us greater freedom to work with different design teams and would reinforce and allow us to create our own identity.

Fortunately the architectural side of the business agreed with our decision and a deal was struck that we would buy ourselves out, would keep the Tibbalds name and keep delivering existing projects. As a result we became Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design. Keeping the Tibbalds name was important to us. Whilst not many young planners today know who Francis Tibbalds was, he was to the four of us the reason we found urban design and we felt his name and legacy encapsulated what we were about and so we decided to embed it in our new identity.

The name and what it stands for underpins our value system and allows us to explain very simply what we are about.

So this comes to the final bit of this blog: a bit of reflection on running a small but perfectly formed planning business! To be honest – and I think my fellow directors would agree – the managing of the business has been the hardest bit for me. Cash flows, business finance, keeping people happy, content and motivated, keeping the business looking forward and constantly innovating.

Delivery on all of the above has been immensely challenging for all of us. I will never forget the first day that we became business owners, sitting at my computer trying to solve a complex planning problem and thinking that the price of a small Mercedes is going out of our bank account every month in order to enable the business to run itself. Terrifying! The costs have probably now increased to several Mercedes and keeping the machine running requires a lot of hard work and dedication from a core team.

I have loved the journey BUT it has been all consuming and in order to sustain interest and energy I think everyone involved needs a bit of time to put it all in perspective, hand the baton to others and take time to step back and think about how they can further contribute in the future.

Putting the bike first

So I am going to give a bit more priority to another great love in life – cycling – and take my bike to the west coast of America and ride from Vancouver to San Diego, with a bit of a diversion into Montana along the way. In between riding we will go see many cities and learn about how they are tackling their planning issues, we will read lots, think lots and hopefully come back refreshed and ready to participate in more great regeneration/ redevelopment projects. See you in the Autumn!

You can follow Jennifer on her adventure on and off the bike at: