Gravis interview miniseries: Richard Bowman

9 November 2023

In the third and final part of our LinkedIn interview miniseries, we heard from our Managing Director of Planning, Richard Bowman. He reflects on how he has seen Belfast and Northern Ireland change in the decades he has spent in the planning industry to date, how the industry itself has changed in this period and the challenges facing it today, and where its focus should be in the coming years – particularly as it strives to tackle climate change by design.

Richard BW Cropped

Richard – as with Ed and David, we’ll ask you to tell us about your life outside of work before anything else.

Having moved about quite a bit in the early part of my career, my wife and I settled in Hillsborough 20 years ago and still live there with two teenage daughters and a recently acquired cocker spaniel. I got into planning because of my love of the natural and built environment. While much of my day-to-day job is now desk based, my private life by contrast is all about the outdoors and travelling. I particularly enjoy staying active and keeping fit and try and juggle family and work life with a combination of cycling, windsurfing, surfing, hill walking and skiing. While this may sound like the lifestyle of someone suffering a midlife crisis, I believe that a good work-life balance is important and is something that we seek to encourage throughout the company. Travelling was curtailed for all of us during the pandemic, but I have been lucky enough to fit in a number of city breaks recently in Europe, which as a planner feels like a busman’s holiday.

You’ve been in the planning industry for a long time now. How have you seen Belfast and Northern Ireland grow as places in the years since peace was achieved? What would you say are the most important and remarkable pieces of built development to have been planned and constructed in that time?

I started my career proper in Planning Service in 1997, just as the peace process was gathering momentum. Having spent three years in the public sector, I made the move to consultancy work in 2001 and while the new political institutions continued to fully establish themselves during the early 2000’s, it was interesting to be working in the private sector on projects in an increasingly confident Northern Ireland. It felt as if the place could finally breathe again after years of underinvestment as a result of negative headlines that were broadcast daily. The hitherto untapped entrepreneurial spirit that was kept at bay for several decades was released and resulted in a boom in development and investment that was difficult to keep pace with.

The property crash of 2007 took us all by surprise and we felt that just as NI was getting back on its feet, we were brought back down to earth by external influences, which for a change, were nothing to do with our unstable past. However, the need to really tackle the root causes of climate change, and corresponding market trends at that time, meant that our workstreams in more traditional sectors were soon equalled and then even superseded by the burgeoning renewables sector. Those that used to build houses and offices began to build wind turbines and solar farms. We also focused more on public sector work at this time and were fortunate enough to be involved in major developments such as the Lisanelly Schools Campus masterplan in Omagh, the South West Acute Hospital and the Ulster University development in Belfast.

Just over 25 years since I started in Planning Service in Belfast, the city has changed significantly. It still has a long way to go and it is our hope that the bold ambitions of Belfast City Council can be fully realised in the next decade; but we could not have imagined in 1997 the city looking like it does today and with a growth plan to attract 66,000 more people to live there. The Waterfront Hall had only just opened in 1997, with the SSE arena not far behind in 2000 and over the next decade or two we saw Victoria Square, Ulster University and associated student accommodation, Titanic Visitor’s centre and all the other waterside developments around City Quays. Assuming the political will and vision within the Council allows, who knows what is possible in the next 25 years.

For us as a planning profession in NI, the new legislation that was introduced in 2015 brought a much-needed change to a system that was well past its sell by date. Most significant has been the increase in public participation in planning with the introduction of Pre-Application Community Consultation. This is something that we have done since inception – we led the way in 2010, for instance, in what ended up being an award-winning stakeholder and community consultation exercise for the Lisanelly Schools masterplan and as we often say in Gravis, the 2015 legislation meant that the planning system in NI had finally caught up with our business model.

It took some time initially to get used to Councillors taking decisions on planning applications but it has been a change for the better, with decisions now being taken which, for the most part, actually reflect local, public opinion. The Councils are good to work with and those that perform best are the ones that place a good quality planning service at the heart of their economic growth plans.

What do you think are the key issues facing the planners of today? What should we be developing – and how – as we seek to become a more efficient, sustainable and equitable society?

The issue of delays in the planning system, especially in NI, is the most significant facing planning officials and in turn developers and their professional advisors. It impacts on investor confidence and reduces the ability of NI to properly showcase itself as a serious place to come and do business. The context for this is the perfect storm of a number of factors: the capacity within Council planning offices, consultees who, probably due to their own budgetary constraints, have the inability to respond to consultation requests from planners within desirable timeframes, and planning officers who are highly conscious that their decisions may be subject to judicial challenge from an increasingly litigious public who are now more informed than ever about development proposals that might affect them.

In terms of what we should be building; in Belfast, if the objective is to attract many more residents to live in the city in the next 10 to15 years, then there must be more adventurous development. Many of us on the private side of the planning profession currently feel that matching the existing context in a streetscape is the norm, rather than using the opportunity that new developments present to push boundaries, go taller and actually give the city the realistic prospect of achieving its population growth target.

More generally, we’re in the early stages of a green revolution and those that care about the future of our planet – which should be all of us – need to be focused on decarbonisation. Green travel is key and the ‘15-minute city’, in which residents have most of their day to day living needs and services within a 15-minute walk, cycle or bus journey of where they live, is aspirational.

Fundamentally, there needs to be a modal shift to take the cars out of our cities, in particular, in city centres and give it over to cycling, pedestrians and public transport. I visited Copenhagen recently where you are more likely to get knocked down by one of the thousands of bicycles being used throughout the city, than you are a motorised vehicle. It is very interesting to observe just how subservient the car as a mode of transport is in the centre of the city by comparison to the pedestrian or cyclist. Copenhagen has a similar climate to Belfast – could you imagine getting Belfast residents to travel to and from work using an integrated transport system which combined the bike with a train or tram? We shouldn’t just be imagining that, but making it happen and, to be fair, there are signs of such change in Belfast.

One significant challenge that is starting to become very clear is that with the move to more and more electric vehicles, we are going to have a serious challenge in retrofitting our urban areas with charging points. This will be particularly pronounced for people who live on terrace streets or blocks of apartments. I strongly suspect that era of the electric vehicle may well be a short one and will soon be replaced by the hydrogen cell!

Can you speak to our recent expansion with new offices in London and Edinburgh? How do you feel about the work we’ve been doing in the Great British market to date?

Gravis Planning has had a presence in the GB market for around 4 years now. Our objective was always to be able to provide an all-Ireland service, but a number of staff members that have come aboard since 2018 have moved back to Ireland from planning practices in England and have brought expertise in the GB planning system as well as clients and projects with them. In addition, many of our long-standing clients are either based in GB or have interests there which has naturally led to us managing planning applications and communications strategies in Scotland or England. With increasing demand for these services, we took the decision in late 2022 to establish offices in Edinburgh and London to provide two bases at either end of the country to serve the geographical spread of projects. Some of our current projects include managing residential and commercial applications in London, anaerobic digestion and solar projects in Scotland as well as other energy planning applications throughout England, including BESS and EV charging. Having that presence in GB has had a positive spin off in terms of attracting new work and it is clear that many clients, especially the larger scale ones, enjoy working with one planning consultancy who they know and trust but who has the ability to manage their planning jobs anywhere in GB or Ireland.

Our main focus on GB growth in the immediate term is in Scotland, with a number of new projects having been instructed there recently and some more in the pipeline. We are planning on making an exciting announcement about our Scottish operation in early December with a view to significantly growing in that part of Gravis Planning during 2024.

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