SME focus — Design consultancy MPSL has opened a total planning service for developers

When Chris Weetman joined planning and design consultancy MPSL from St Helen’s council in July, the move raised a few eyebrows among his former colleagues.

The head of building and planning control was giving up a 22-year career in the public sector to become managing director of the planning division of a design firm that specialised in housing, and which at that point had not had a single qualified town planner on its payroll.

Two months on from Weetman’s appointment, the reaction would be somewhat different. With its planning division up and running, Manchester-based MPSL can offer clients a one-stop shop for the submission of planning applications, masterplanning, Urban Design and architecture. This means its customers do not have to employ a one-man planning adviser on projects that are too small for a large planning consultancy.

The service has caught the eye of some of the UK’s biggest contractors. MPSL is working with Taylor Woodrow on a stadium for St Helen’s rugby league club. It is also about to submit an application on Taywood’s behalf for a residential scheme on the club’s ground, as part of a three-phase scheme to relocate the stadium. MPSL also counts Bellway, Persimmon, Westbury and Bovis Homes among its clients.

Weetman says demand for MPSL’s services has increased since the planning division was launched. “Some clients are slightly wary of using our full service as they already have pet consultants on board, but there is definitely a growing demand for using our services as a full package.

“A lot of our repeat clients are saying for their next scheme they will use us from the start to the finish of the planning process.”

A lot of our repeat clients say they will use us from start to finish of planning

Chris Weetman, MPSL

Part of the reason for MPSL’s expanding workload is that section 42 of the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act, which came into force on 10 August, requires all planning applications to be accompanied by design and access statements. The former explain how the design of a scheme takes into account its surroundings and the latter describe how the design complies with the Disability Discrimination Act.

“It’s opened a whole realm of extra bureaucracy,” says Weetman. “The advantage we can offer is that we’re involved at the design stage, so we already have the information we need to comply with the statements.”

The growth of its planning services is the first big change introduced at family-run MPSL since it was set up five years ago. But with 50-60% of workload coming from new clients, rather than repeat customers, it is looking to grow further. The firm broke the £1m turnover mark for the first time last year and is now looking to increase its focus on sustainability and the retail and commercial sectors.

MPSL is also looking to expand into other parts of northern England. Its current projects are located in Doncaster, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds and Greater Manchester, but the firm is targeting work in what Weetman calls the “dark mills” of Burnley and Blackburn.

“We’re targeting the areas of the North where we have gaps, and starting a marketing campaign in those locations,” says Weetman. “Often people stumble across companies and if they get what they want, they will go back.”

MPSL could also be prepared to venture south. “It is something we’d consider, on a project-by-project basis,” says Weetman. “If a client said it had acquired some land and wanted to work with us, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem.”