Butler’s Place: Rhian Stratton

Heather Butler talks to Rhian Stratton, associate at Nexus Planning in Manchester, the specialist consultancy launched this year by Broadway Malyan.

Where are we?

In the sunshine at Dukes 92 bar in Manchester. Since starting with Broadway Malyan in 2006 I've been based in Castlefields, first in Bass Warehouse overlooking the beer garden and now just around the corner at Eastgate. I have a great vantage point and a view that is so typically 'Manchester'. I love the balance of quiet and tranquility on the canal side, then looking past the old brick arches up towards the Beetham Tower. I've seen the trains passing for so many years, I know it's 4.20pm when I hear the huge freight train rumbling past.

It's lovely to sit outside by the canal and watch the world go by, but it can be terrible when you're on a deadline and have a late night ahead of you, and there are people heading down to the beer garden. You just have to tune it out and know you can enjoy it later.

What do you do?

Contrary to popular opinion I'm not an architect. It's an assumption people make when they hear the name Broadway Malyan. Although it is a global architectural practice, it's also home to planners and other specialists. I'm a planning and regeneration consultant and our team has always worked with the architects on projects which need both skill sets, and independently with our own clients.

We've been doing it for years and have some very good relationships with clients both, working on some great schemes both public and private, but not everyone realized we offered that service. Now, with the launch of Nexus as a distinct brand, we're being recognised specifically for planning and regeneration expertise in our own right.

What's on your desk?

At the top of the mountain of paper work is a planning application for a residential development of 400 homes on a brownfield site. There's some work on sites we're promoting for developers through the local plan process, and a couple of site feasibility studies. The current policy vacuum and local plans consultations are keeping me very busy.

There's lots happening and we're a very hands-on team so clients get a very personal service. Everyone rolls their sleeves up, they want to get stuck in, that's why you do the job. There's nothing better than being involved with something that's a success.

Why did you choose this industry?

I left Wrexham for a history and politics degree at Liverpool University but switched courses in my first year. People kept asking if I was going to be a teacher, as that's all you could do with that degree. Now I know that's not true, but it got me thinking about what I really wanted to do. I'd always had an interest in design and development, and specifically regeneration. One day I walked over from the history department to the civic design department and changed to the town planning course.

It's not always clear how you're going to take a degree on to a career but I've found it interesting and rewarding, and I am pleased I made the change. I've since completed a masters in urban design at Birmingham University.

How did you get started?

My first job was as a socioeconomic regeneration specialist at a small practice in Stockton Heath where I worked until joining the planning and development team at BM seven years ago. I'm still in touch with my old boss Paul Hammond and owe him an awful lot as he got me started and really inspired me. I often find one of the best opportunities for learning is on long car journeys, and he used to spend them telling me all about the industry and our role in it, passing on pearls of wisdom as we drove up and down the M6.

How come you're here?

I was offered the chance to help build the BM planning and regeneration offer and it has been a very rewarding choice. There is a need for development, but it has to be done in the right way.

We have a housing shortage in this country and we do need commercial space, people have to have places to live and work, and a large part of the UK economy is dependent on the sector. Not everyone is going to agree on the best way to do things but my role is to look at the situation and envisage a strategy, and then work out the best way to implement that, and try to communicate the benefits as best I can. You won't get everyone to agree every time, but when people can see the reason and understand the rationale, often they will come along with you.

What was a job well done?

Barons Quay at Northwich, the regeneration scheme for Cheshire West & Chester Council. It's an ongoing project and has been a really interesting scheme to work on, and hugely satisfying. I managed the planning, regeneration and communications strategy for a 200,000 sq ft mixed use development which was granted planning permission with a unanimous vote, that was a great moment. There was such support from local councillors and residents and huge commitment from the local authority to see their strategy come to fruition. It's a fantastic example of how the authorities can realise their vision to improve their town. Their commitment to the process along with the support of the local community was amazing to see. It was not just about planning a £50m development, it was about creating a new town centre for the people of Northwich. Securing planning was so exciting and it will be fantastic to see the first spade go in the ground.

And the tougher times?

I came to BM in 2006, the industry was booming there was plenty of activity and lots of work on. Then the recession came and everybody suffered. What helped us is that we work across a range of sectors, for both local authorities and private developers and housebuilders and were flexible enough to adapt to the changing circumstances.

But it has also been a great time to look at planning the way forward. Because there has been such caution over development it has provided breathing space for local authorities to look at their local plans and strategies and put things in place for when development does come back. We've done a lot of work within strategic land promotion and consultation, getting sites oven ready for development. It feels like we're coming out of it now, that it is behind us.

What's next?

We want to grown Nexus Planning but won't lose the personal touch. The team always operated as a smaller business within a larger business and can continue to do that while establishing our own identity. We're not changing anything about what we do, our approach to customers or in our relationship with BM, we are still allied to them and have a multi disciplinary offer. But it is exciting to be there at the start of something new.

When it comes to client work, whether it's for public bodies or private developers, I'll be looking to identify opportunities and actively look to bring schemes to fruition, particularly if they are blocked in the system. Personally I enjoy regeneration and strategic development and look forward to seeing the projects I'm working on being delivered. More immediately, however, we're planning the launch party for Nexus and I need to get the venue booked, the invitations printed and posted.

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