Nigel Thomson: Man of steel and grass

Copyright: David Lawson

Published: Property Week 2007

Sir Nigel Thompson must be used to puzzled looks and whispered asides after spending half a lifetime with feet in two warring camps.  One is planted on steel and glass. He only recently retired as vice-chairman of Arup, one of the top names in development and construction. The other stands just as firmly on grass, in his role as chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, often cast as an arch enemy of the property industry.

    But he feels little of the conflict of interest which might raise eyebrows in both City boardrooms and parish halls packed with protestors. It is wrong to believe the CPRE opposes all development, says Sir Nigel. Equally mistaken is to think all development is bad.

   The CPRE was set up in the inter-war years when homes were desperately needed but measures also required to prevent cities sprawling. The same is happening today and the solutions are similar.‘We are not anti-development,’ he says. ‘We are against bad development. We were promoting sustainability then and we are doing the same now.’

   On frequent travels around CPRE’s branches, he is keen to persuade an army of 60,000 members to avoid blanket negativity, tempering criticism with praise for good development. Similar compromises are suggested when clients marshal legions of concrete mixers.

   Perhaps Sir Nigel could only have followed these dual paths in a firm like Arup. The multi-disciplinary consultancy was concerned about wider issues long before global warming hit the headlines, and is a pioneer of environmentally friendly design.  ‘There are schemes in which we refused to be involved,’ he says. But compromise is more common, with developers persuaded that good planning and design can defuse much of the conflict and delay which blights the sector.

   This is not as difficult as some might think. Developers are not as black as they are painted, he says, citing the pioneering efforts of friend and client Sir Stuart Lipton, and a general move to accept earth-friendly building.    But what about wider issues such green belts, nuclear power and mass housing?  There appears less scope for compromise when the Queen’s Speech was dubbed by the CPRE as ‘more Brown than green’ and the Planning Reform Bill castigated as a ‘developer's charter’.

  Sir Nigel is not retreating an inch on green belts, which he says are merely doing their job, preventing cities merging into seething cauldrons. The solution lies in the hands of the property industry, he says. Densely developed housing in Kensington & Chelsea is among the most desirable in the world, because it is well designed. If other areas followed suite, there would be little need to spread outwards. We need to make our towns and cities work better—it will help everyone and also help protect our countryside.

  But he also tries to persuade fervent CPRE objectors that development can be beneficial, such as homes in and around small towns to help locals priced out of the market. But they need to be well-planned. Bad design is the root of most development protests, he says.

  Commercial property also has a big role through promotion of mixed use – not just in cities but smaller towns where homes and jobs can live together.  ‘I have seen two planning disasters in my time: clearing Edwardian homes for badly designed tower blocks and stand-alone shopping centres where institutions refused to contemplate homes,’ says Sir Nigel.  

  The current bout of reforms may not improve matters.  He departs from some CPRE members by favouring energy sources like nuclear and wind power – albeit in existing industrial areas rather than open countryside.  Arup’s involvement in the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry also convinced him of the need for faster decisions. But he warns that a Planning Commission could sever links with local democracy and end up a major recruiting aid for protestors like the CPRE.  ‘My worry is that the Treasury now appears in the driving seat and is hungry for big developments,’ he says.

   Other problems could be resolved without troubling MPs with another batch of reforms. ‘There is not too much wrong when 82% of applications go through on time,’ he says. 

  Developers could be their own worst enemy, almost inviting delay and rejection through sloppiness. ‘CABE found that a third of projects are appallingly designed and have inadequate documentation,’ says Sir Nigel. But planners are not without fault. As he tails off his Arup career with a major London regeneration scheme he sees the system sinking under a tide of paper. ‘Local officers demand vast amounts of information which they often don’t understand. Some of the things they demand actually make things less green.’

  More resources are needed for training and extra manpower to cope with changes brought in by the 2004 Act even before new demands from the triple weight of Planning, Energy and Climate Bills.

Sir Nigel Thompson, Chartered Engineer

1939 born

1960 joined Ove Arup & Partners

2002 knighted for overseeing UK reconstruction in Kosovo and Yugoslavia

2003 elected chairman of CPRE

2007 retires as Arup deputy chairman

Chairman of Mildenhall Parish Council in Wiltshire's Kennet Valley, where he has lived for more than 30 years. He and wife, Nicky, restored a derelict farmhouse and smallholding, now devoted to woodland and wildflower meadows. An active member of the Action for the River Kennet group.