Master planning

Dean Suttling

February 25th, 2022

From a residential developer’s perspective, being aware of and contributing to master plan developments will enable you to understand and make recommendations regarding the community’s proposals while identifying business opportunities.

Even if you are on the periphery of influencing the master plan, being aware of the steps such plans go through to be realised is invaluable.

But what is a master plan? What is involved in the development of them including what factors are considered, including how you measure success and future planning characteristics are all critical components to be aware of to gain such an understanding?

Masterplan Examples

An interesting case is Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, HS2, which covers a vast geographical area in the country with an eye on leading large-scale regeneration and economic growth. The route of HS2 involves numerous masterplans such as Curzon Street, Crewe Hub, Old Oak Common and Arden Cross, to name but a few, along the way.

These master plans generally fall into two categories, e.g., where the overall HS2 route would be the strategic masterplan that would identify the entire country and a policy or challenge to be met and what benefits the investment could offer. In this case, the UK government has spoken many times about ”levelling up”, which entails large scale investment in Infrastructure to improve everyday life across the UK. Funding that runs into the billions was set aside in the budget to tackle the issue and to address a perceived regional economic inequality.

And then, at a more local level, there are project masterplans such as those referred to above, where sites in cities or towns are developed as regional hubs harnessing the strategic benefits of the wider masterplan.

As part of the levelling up strategy, powers involved in the planning process have been devolved from central government to regional authorities with calculations concerning how investment benefits are derived, updated, and evolving.

All of this means that from an infrastructure perspective, master planning will control how investment in towns and cities in terms of local transport and how this connects into larger national infrastructure projects such as HS2 will alleviate regional inequality. When we talk of regional disparities, this is about a study and research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) that found regional disparities in the UK are more prominent than that of other comparable countries.

Process of Development and Framework for Development

Like any development, there should be a series of stages in the development so that a process can be followed e.g:

  • Strategic Framework – This is needed to establish the common principles against which any planned development should be held. It is essential to define this so that any strategic or project development decisions can be taken through a governance review and held up against the strategic framework to ensure consistency against the vision and plan is adhered to.
  • Feasibility Study – identifying a location and then assessing the practicality of the options, including economic, technical, legal, including tax requirements and the programming and scheduling of the development. The feasibility study includes a review of the historical background of the location to understand the sites environmental, geographic, and historical context. The commissioning of surveys such as hydrogeology, ecological and other site investigation surveys should be undertaken at this stage. There should be an analysis of the expected return on investment, which can be scaled up to a national level – in the case of HS2 – and the projected impact on the economy.
  • Physical Elements – This is broken down into sub-elements such as Image, Biodiversity, split of uses such as residential and non-residential, including business use, Infrastructure in terms of utilities and transportation, and what the open space consists of terms of the public realm, mixed-use etc. For image, think of 3D models which can be used to develop options for land use and to look at the resulting developmental needs. It will also look at the neighbourhood character, including the site heritage. In terms of biodiversity and environmental factors, these should be established at the outset and then how these are intended to be met, which will play into the results of the survey completed at the feasibility stage. Avoid a generic plan and focus on the individual ‘locations’ constraints if possible, such as endangered species. The plan should seek to address how the planned development will impact the site biodiversity and the strategy to address this, including how you will strike a balance between replacing or treating the site as part of the works. For Infrastructure, the master plan should demonstrate at a strategic level how it envisages managing the needs considering the more comprehensive infrastructure network, including what utilities are available and how this will need to be extended into the development or upgraded as part of the masterplan and what the calculations are behind this.From a transport perspective, the plan should show how the different modes of transport will be integrated, including strategic road and rail traffic down to local roads and light rail plus non-motorised users whereby walking routes and cycling routes can be established and how all of this will impact on the land use and the capacity has been calculated depending on the level and size of the development.

Masterplanning Factors to Consider

Failure is led by the lack of a clear business plan. By this, it means that consideration should be given to how the built environment impacts the urban working and social aspects and the technical aspects of interconnected systems of transport, energy and utilities and environmental considerations such as air and noise quality.

  • Physical: The master plan should allow for technological advances expected to occur in the future, including allowing capacity for growth. A system of calculating growth and what future demand is likely should be established, and as a result, predicted growth can be built into the plan. Also, what is the plan for dealing with any existing heritage aspects of proposed sites, including cultural attributes and what if the site has historical precedent? How will this be dealt with? Establishing how the master plan will identify, review options, select a decision-making process and then treat the issues is critical if the existing users will be willing to endorse the proposed changes.
  • Social: Social sustainability and a plan to tackle it should be established, including how the project will manage public consultations and site broader engagement. Looking at how people use space needs to be considered, and this should encompass the demographic, so factors such as age, gender, the economic status will be necessary. Also, healthy urban areas will involve planning sustainable developments, including travel, green spaces, reducing pollution and protecting residential standards. For example, if the residential part of the development is poorly designed, this could lead to issues with the residents’ poor health. Also, having established the considered needs, how will the community be made aware of the consultation and the plan to give them all the opportunity to put a view across? How will the engagement work and when the results are in how the engagement will be used, and in what format will feedback be given to the community all need to be established? As part of the community engagement, there should be carefully thought-out plans as to how the engagement process will be supported, including who will be involved, what appropriate information will be available, and once the consultation has been completed and processed what changes to the plan have been made and how will this be communicated back to the community and wider stakeholders.
  • Economical – The business case for the development will need to stack up. The cost ratio to the benefits return will need to be established and accepted for the development to proceed. If we again look at the Curzon Street master plan, this ties into a broader Birmingham Development Plan (BDP), which is expected to deliver 51,100 new homes, 270,000 m² of additional retail floor space and 745,000 m² of office space and provided by 2031. The BDP itself is derived from a master plan called the Big City Plan, the strategic master plan. The benefit of this is an estimated 36,000 new jobs through significant employment space, which has then been calculated to derive a £1.4b economic uplift. The need to establish through the expected benefits from an economic point of view is crucial if investors are to be enticed into committing to the plan. The master plan needs to make business sense foremost for it to be taken forward. There are tools available to support this, such as the BREEAM Communities International Technical Standard. This works by measuring large-scale development plans’ social, environmental, and economic sustainability. Operating to establish a common framework for stakeholders and allow them to influence the design solutions, BREEAM has issued a technical manual that covers issues such as housing provision, transport networks, community facilities, and economic impact. The technical manual provides a way to measure the sustainability of the development. Such a method allows the master planners to have constructive interaction between design professionals, local authority planners, communities and planning authorities to establish clear benefits. Then performance can be measured against the benefits as the development takes shape and through the consultations.

Criticism of Masterplanning

Whilst the advantages are apparent, there are, of course, criticisms. Often this is in the form of the strategy being too ‘top-down’ and therefore idyllic as an approach that does not deal with the detail and equally, nor with the existing surrounding communities.

Similarly, there is a perception that master planning fixates on the visual aspects but needs to focus more on the link between public and private investment and how the two can be best aligned in terms of objectives.

Further comment on the considerations that should be applied to strategic and project level master planning are:

  • The need to establish common objectives and drivers between the local authority and the developer(s).
  • Ensuring there is clarity regarding the vision and purpose of the master plan so that all stakeholders share the same ambition.
  • For early-stage illustrations, check to ensure the details are sufficient to finish and look to avoid misconceptions later.
  • Upon developing the master plan, make sure to tackle any infrastructure difficulties, landscape design and what works are going on at the boundary line of the master plan.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

About Dean Suttling

A member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Dean has twenty years of experience in commercial management and quantity surveying, undertaking roles for contractors, clients, and consultants.

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