Key messages from the NSIPs Forum 2017

The 5th Annual National Significant Infrastructure Projects Forum 2017 was attended by May Lester, Emily Marshall, Sam Rowe and Tom Mothersole. Here, May shares some key insights from the day.

This year’s event began with a resonating introduction from Gideon Amos OBE, National Planning Advisor for GL Hearn, who gave a succinct overview of the birth of the Planning Act 2008 (no mean feat!). His calm reflection that back in the early 2000s, infrastructure was being attacked from all sides by climate change, economic downturns and mass uncertainty, drew some unspoken comparisons to the ambiguity faced by many of us across the world today.

There was a huge amount of information shared on the day, and here I’ve tried to summarise the three key messages that we took away…

There are busy times ahead

Simone Wilding, Head of Major Casework for the Planning Inspectorate, explained that in the next few years, there are the highest number of applications predicted for submission to PINS. In summary, energy project applications are staying steady (19 applications predicted over the next two years), whereas transport project applications are increasing (44 predicted over the same timeframe). Simone’s statistics were echoed by Angus Walker, Partner at Bircham Dyson Bell, who said that energy projects were currently influenced more by finances than the planning process itself. He advised that the Government would do well to look at improving this, as it will be an ever-increasing need. The Brexit-shaped elephant in the room was addressed by our very own Emily Marshall towards the end of the day, the topic of which was received with relief and the expected shrugs of shoulders.

The increase in applications, and the subsequent workload of PINS, now means that it’s more important than ever to create a watertight DCO from the get-go.

 Preparation is key

Almost every speaker shared personal experiences of what had gone well and what had gone very wrong during their careers in planning, consultations and DCO submissions. The clear message was that preparation is everything to a successful pre-application process. A few ‘lessons learned’ points included:

  • Ensure consistency across documentation
  • Engage with local authorities as soon as possible
  • Refer to PINS advice notes; these are your ‘instruction manual’
  • The more information you exchange with stakeholders at consultation stage, the more detailed answers and feedback you will get in response – risk can therefore be managed more robustly
  • Liaise with landowners early on in the process, and understand there will be specific topics they want to discuss
  • Get organised! Have the right team for the job
  • Consider elements such as landscape, tourism and heritage in the early stages, as this will secure mitigation and legacy – improving the chances of success overall

For me, most prominent was to ensure that you’ve identified what you’re trying to achieve; what is your project? Build your consultation process around this, not the other way around.

 They don’t believe you

Rhion Jones, Institute Director and Associate at The Consultation Institute completed the day by making what could have been deemed a hugely negative statement, the fact that, unfortunately, people no longer believe large companies during consultations. He expanded on this by defining ‘post-truth’ (Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016) – Relating to or demoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Rather than dwelling on this as a problem, Rhion summarised with this uplifting, and seemingly simple solution: public dialogue must be genuine.

This is certainly something I have experienced on projects I’ve worked on at Counter Context, in that having transparent, real conversations with stakeholders is the best platform on which both parties can understand one another, and move forward with a mutual understanding and respect.

We look forward to applying the knowledge and insights taken away from the NSIPs Forum 2017 in order to benefit our clients and the ultimate success of their projects. If you’d like any further information about this event, please contact me on

Housing issues are deep in the British psyche

Our MD Alexis responds to the long-awaited housing white paper ‘Fixing our broken housing market’, released by the Government on 7 February 2017.

The housing market is broken. We are not building enough homes and for too many a house is unaffordable. This tail of doom and gloom was at the heart of a document released last week by the government. Since then hundreds, if not thousands of articles have been written about the underlying problems with the UK housing market. Do not worry, this is not another one.

Us Brits like to talk about houses; where we live, where we want to live. How much our house was, is and might be worth. Whether we prefer Sarah Beeny or Kevin McCloud on TV. There is something deep in the British psyche that obsesses about bricks and mortar. Perhaps it all stems from the old maxim “An Englishman’s home is his castle”?

The debate about new housing is equally fraught. In one corner, we have developers and their advisors focussed on the intricacies of UK planning law. Figuring out what you can build, and where, is hugely complex. In the other corner, you have what many regard, often unfairly, to be NIMBYs. People anxious about the impact new housing might have on local roads, schools and greenspaces.

When these competing interests meet the following usually occurs. There is argument, distress and delay. Some houses do not get built, some do. Either way the process is often long and drawn out. It costs developers time and money and it causes anxiety and distress in communities.

What can we do about this in Sheffield? Firstly, it means recognising that lower prices means building more homes. We are lucky to have innovative developers working in the city centre, but what they do cannot be the only solution. Many of us vote with our feet by heading out to the suburbs as we grow older and our families grow larger. This stampede means building on greenspaces and occasionally, where necessary, the Green Belt.

Having a debate about difficult decisions will be necessary. We need a debate that does not involve opposing every development, blaming the Town Hall or treating everyone as a NIMBY. Sheffielders are renowned for being straight talking. We need to be straight about housing. We need more homes and we need them now. If you are not persuaded look in the window of your local estate agent; the price is only going in one direction. It might feel good now but it will only feel worse for our children.

McLaren to accelerate growth of South Yorkshire’s AMID

McLaren has announced it will open a £50 million supercar facility at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Our MD Alexis shares his perspective on why this is a big win for South Yorkshire and an example of what can be achieved through partnership working. 

I am massively unlikely to ever buy a McLaren car. I have never sat in one. Why then am I excited about the news that the supercar manufacturer is going to open new facilities in Sheffield and Rotherham?

Reputations matter. The McLaren brand is renowned around the world for true excellence in engineering. Their research and development push the limits of what humans can do on four wheels. Their arrival in South Yorkshire will almost certainly attract additional companies looking to supply the new factory. Their new facility will provide further reason for South Yorkshire to be on the map for those investing and interested in advanced manufacturing.

Domain expertise matters. The ability to specialise in a specific area of the economy will be critical for cities and regions looking to compete successfully. Over the last couple of decades the Local Authorities in Sheffield and Rotherham, the University of Sheffield and blue chip businesses have been quietly building the world-class Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID). Their foresight is paying off. Today’s news will likely be the first in a number of high-profile investments.

Relationships matter. AMID shows that it is possible for Local Authorities to collaborate. Rotherham and Sheffield have been known to compete for investment. Competition is healthy but it can quickly become corrosive. Today’s announcement shows what can be achieved when you work together. The Local Enterprise Partnership has played a significant role in making this happen, bringing our city region together and putting us on the map – huge thanks should go out to them. Congratulations all round are deserved.

Meet our daily designer

The newest addition to our team, Jack, is a talented illustrator with a 12,000 strong following on Instagram. In his blog post, he explains what it took to stand out from the crowd when establishing himself as a designer. 

Becoming a designer

Many people strive towards self-improvement but often get stuck at the first hurdle, asking the question “but how?”. My answer is to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not as scary as it sounds.

A year and a half ago to this date, I realised that life was changing; university was over and the world of full-time work was fast approaching. And let’s not sugar-coat the truth, it’s hard, way harder than making it to a 9 am lecture.

Looking for my first break in design was frustrating, hard and demoralising. I had rejection email after rejection email (if I was lucky, some never even replied).

I decided I had to do something different, something that would make me as a designer stand out from the crowd. So, I started creating daily designs. It gave me something else to fill my days with, other than just applying for jobs. I set myself a target to post one design every day no matter how good or bad they were (trust me there were some very bad ones).

Using social media as my platform for a mini portfolio (great for job interviews) enabled me to make what I wanted when I wanted. Whether I was on the train, bus, plane, or anywhere.

Learning to draw

 I have loved drawing since my grandma bought me a full artist set when I was five years old. I still own this artist set. Moving on to Adobe systems at university equipped me with the tools to bring drawings to life on screen, and suitable for use in a professional context.

When I first started my daily designs, I’d read design blogs and find one piece that would influence the design I was going to do that day. My first designs were generally making a word visually reflect their meaning. I remember looking at other people’s work and wondering how they’d thought of doing that.
I was never a believer in ‘that lightbulb moment’ you hear about, but funnily enough, it happened. At some point, everything clicked. I went from looking at other people’s work for influence to me in a way instinctively knowing what will work. I built up a catalogue of designs in my head and people began to take notice.

Developing a brand

I developed an ethos like all strong brands and companies have. Simplicity is key. From this, a set of unwritten, yet set in stone rules were applied to my work. This lead to me taking everyday objects or nostalgic items and making them the centre of attention in my work. I didn’t want anything else to compete with them on the page.

With time, my ethos developed and so did my following. Simplicity was still the key, but the proof was also now in the tiny details. Having a nice outline and nice colours weren’t enough. I began to experiment with highlights and shadows, still focusing on simplicity. Many designers use gradients so their highlights and shadows blend in with their work. My thinking was different, the shadows and highlights should stand proudly on top of the work. This theme has continued to develop.

Turning daily designs into a day job

My dad used to say “this colouring in won’t help you find a job”, which is one thing he no doubts regrets saying now. The skills I’ve developed feed into my role at Counter Context; I apply the same ethos to my illustrations which make for a more refined design. I’ve found that my illustration skills have come in handy in all the design jobs I’ve had, as it is normally a thing that is outsourced.

And now here I am, over 12,000 people who follow and like my work on Instagram, finally in a job that I like, learning from people with bags of experience but also finding myself with some tips to share, which I never thought would happen.

To progress, leave your comfort zone. Before you know it, you will find yourself back in that comfort zone, it’s just much bigger and better than before.










The Outdoor City needs to strut its stuff

In his monthly column for The Star, Counter Context MD, Alexis Krachai explores the uniqueness of Sheffield. 

It is 20 years since the release of The Full Monty. When I mention I am from Sheffield, people still say that they associate our city with unemployed male strippers. The tale of former steel workers strutting their stuff on the stage of local clubs certainly put Sheffield on the map. That is no bad thing but after 20 years many would argue times have moved on.

I recently chaired an event where leading property developers were asked how Sheffield could compete with Manchester and Leeds. Their answer was we should not. We should identify what makes us different. A few days later this newspaper’s front page shouted Sheffield needs an identity that changes perceptions about the city.

We have a new identity. It is staring us in the face. We simply need to be better at shouting about it.

You know an idea is a good one when people argue over who came up with it. Sheffield being the Outdoor City is one of those ideas. Few can deny that our city is surrounded by some of the finest countryside in the UK, if not the world. If you are not persuaded, then take anyone for a drive out to the Peak District via Surprise View.

We are the greenest city in Europe. We are home to some of the most successful outdoor companies and brands in the world. No major city in the UK can compete with our natural surroundings. Why would we want to compete with Manchester and Leeds when we have something unique to offer?

Being the Outdoor City matters. It can create new jobs and attract new businesses; companies want to relocate to places that offer a great quality of life. Investors want opportunities that only we can offer. The latest example is the Council looking for a partner to redevelop the site of the old Ski Village.

With so much to offer, what’s the problem? We are not being bold enough. The Council should be congratulated for coming up with such a great idea. The Outdoor City now needs support from other companies and organisations to make the idea really fly. This is not about who takes the credit. It is about coming together to strut our stuff and promote an identity that can put Sheffield on the world map for the next 20 years and beyond.