Strong criticism of planning and licensing rules was at the centre of the keynote speech at this year’s BCSC conference taking place in Manchester, with Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of healthy fast food chain Leon, warning that “ambitions will be crushed” without an overhaul of the system.
There are currently 30 Leon outlets throughout London with 20 more openings in the pipeline, and the search is on for a site in Manchester. According to Dimbleby the premise of Leon is that “fast food doesn’t have to be bad food”. Establishing the brand with business partner John Vincent in 2004, Dimbleby said he quickly learned that an innovative concept could be lost in the face of complicated planning and licensing problems.
“We were in debates over whether we were an A1, A3 or A4 use, whether we could serve beer with our meatballs, whether the font on our Leon sign was different to the one submitted in the planning application.
“When we set up our first Leon branch on Carnaby Street, we were spending so much time dealing with this high-level shit, which is hard to navigate and does nothing to help your business at all.”
Dimbleby acutely felt the restrictions of planning and licensing when establishing London Union earlier this year he said, a business ventures which creates night markets in abandoned and derelict spaces.
“Half of my time was spent talking to councillors, MPs, and planning officers to try to speed up the process. We were trying to set up a market but you feel like you’re being tried for murder, licensing committees are that terrifying.
“Planning was invented to deal with things that take a long time. We want to open a new market within eight weeks once we’ve found the right site, and that is something planners just cannot compute.
“What happens to ideas and innovation when they engage with that process? It results in mediocrity.
“In the retail sector we are finally in a golden age where we are creating amazing things, not just putting up crap. But if we do not have a complete overhaul of the planning system, those ambitions will be crushed.”
Dimbleby’s view was supported by co-panellist John Atkins, chief executive of Hammerson and BCSC president.
“The planning process drains the industry and adds cost,” Atkins said. “Getting one scheme through the system once cost us a total of £40m, which is utter madness. We could have built hospitals and schools for that kind of money.”
While Dimbleby acknowledged that local authority planning departments were under-resourced, he said that councils’ cautious attitudes were a major block to bringing forward projects quickly.
“If there is a 100% chance that nothing is going to go wrong, then there is a 100% chance that nothing will happen at all,” he said.