Our 100% success rate in all planning applications continues with our latest scheme just outside of Belfast…

Planning consent was granted this week for the 60 bed dementia excellence care home on the Millisle Peninsula we have designed for our client Belfast Central Mission.  We are now looking at a second phase with BCM to provide some close care bungalows to ensure that they can offer a seamless continuing care environment on this amazing site overlooking the Irish Sea.

Copelands Care Home, Belfast

Time for a Change?

It comes to us all. That sudden realisation that you have missed a leap in technology: that awful moment where you suddenly feel out of touch.  The moment when a young person rolls their eyes and says something along the lines of “what do you mean you’ve never heard of Snapchat?’  It will come as no surprise to you to hear that I actually had my first moment like this when still comparatively young.  In the late 1990’s, I went into HMV*1  to buy a video (I don’t remember which one: probably one of the more cerebral arthouse classics like Die Hard 8 or Rocky 9) The assistant apologised, saying they didn’t have any video copies left of the film I wanted but they did have it on DVD.  I had literally never heard of DVD!  It was explained to me as being ‘like a laser disc but much smaller’.  I was quite shocked that a whole new wave of technological advancement had passed me by.  I found myself slowly shaking my head in wide eyed amazement as the thirteen year old shop assistant explained how this new technology worked.

I was reminded of this recently when driving past a building site where some new student accommodation was being built using a modular construction system.   I was on my way to one of our construction sites where we were building a new care home using traditional methods.  As I pulled up, I noticed that the builders on our site were occupied with traffic management, sweeping up rubbish, talking to nosy neighbours, taking delivery of various palettes of materials, and it struck me that none of them was actually building anything.  I had just driven past a site where modular sections were being craned and bolted into place, where kitchen and bathroom ‘pods’ had come to site already finished internally with wiring and plumbing all pre-fitted in a factory probably somewhere in Germany or Sweden.  They wouldn’t be recording days lost due to inclement weather or suffering the problems of competing finishing trades getting in each other’s way.  Surely this should be the way we build all of our buildings in the 21st Century.  Or is it….?

As a nation we flirted with system building in the 1960’s and it didn’t go well.  Well-documented problems of poor thermal efficiency, noise transfer and condensation caused by badly made elements being badly bolted together resulted in a backlash against this type of building.  However, surely by now in these days of computer aided design and laser technology these problems will all have been ironed out.  There is huge business in off-site manufacture and modular system building which is fuelling the growth in student living and hotel chain development throughout the world.  So why don’t we in the care sector embrace this technology and use modular systems more?   We could speed up construction and eradicate the problems inherent in trying to build in the driving wind and pouring rain.

Some say one of the reasons we are reluctant is that funding institutions want to invest in properties over a lengthy period and there may be some doubt over the longevity of the timber framed systems on offer? I am not so sure this is the reason. We do, after all, still have plenty of timber framed buildings from over 500 years ago still standing. No, I have another theory why the care home development industry remains reluctant and that is to do with adaptability.  Without exception, every care home we have built has, at some, point, involved a client / end user walking around the part-completed building and asking if it’s not too late to “(i) put another window in there? (ii) sub-divide this room into two (iii) move that door to there and create a new store cupboard?”  With traditional construction this means cutting away a few blocks and shoving a new lintel in.  With modular construction it means telling your client that “yes …sorry, it is too late”.  The typical care home operator is always looking to ‘tinker’ with a building. I think this happens less in the more corporate hotel and student accommodation world because of the lack of personal ownership of those buildings. Whereas the corporate market dominates hotel ownership, a massive 70% of the care home market is composed of providers who each have no more than 0.4% of total beds*2. These are the small operators who have one or two homes and look after them just as they would their own home. It’s this personal touch which will always differentiate the majority of care home owners from owners of other asset classes. I like this. It chimes with the household model of care that all good operators aspire to. The emphasis on ‘home’ is every bit as important as the emphasis on ‘care’.


*1for our younger readers HMV was a shop….no… not like Amazon, an actual shop where you could buy records and videos….oh just Google it!

*2House of Commons Library Briefing Paper (The care home market (England) Feb 2017)

This article first appeared in caring Times Magazine – September 2017



Danny Sharpe

Some people just shouldn’t…

I was minding my own business the other day, happily driving down a country lane, coasting towards a roundabout when I was suddenly snapped out of my reverie by a red-faced, pot-bellied middle aged man in Lycra on a bicycle. He was gesticulating wildly and, I assume, shouting obscenities (to be honest, I had Creedence Clearwater Revival playing at full volume so I can’t be entirely sure). In any event he seemed to think I should have given way to him, whereas I was equally confident of being far enough ahead of him to enter the roundabout, signal and exit long before he even got near. I pulled over, wound my window down and gently explained that whilst I found it admirable that he had decided to take up a sporting activity, it may be that, given his obvious high blood pressure, anger management issues and his not inconsiderable girth that perhaps a gentler re-introduction to the world of exercise might be in order. I suggested fishing perhaps, or maybe scrabble, before working his way up to cycling. Actually I didn’t say any of that: it only occurred to me about two hours later but it’s my article and so I get to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it.

But this leads me neatly into this month’s ramble. There are a number of operators and developers coming into the care sector who – like my puce-faced cycling friend – should really think about doing something else. This tends to occur when the housing or hotel market takes a nosedive. We find the care sector is suddenly infiltrated by developers who are looking for a less volatile, safer market in which to invest. Their rationale is that care homes are the same as hotels or student housing. Build the building, sort out a sale and leaseback deal, build up the occupancy and then flog it off to a pension fund that will be glad of the long lease and the steady income stream. The ‘care’ element is very much an afterthought. Over the years, I have worked for a number of developer / operators who really shouldn’t be in the ‘care’ sector. You know who you are! (…just in case you don’t I will provide a list of names at the end of this article to avoid any uncertainty).

I had a phone call just last week from one such developer who wanted to pick my brain on the extra care market and the C2 Use Class in general. He listened to me for a while and when I got into some of the intricacies of designing for people with limited physical abilities and, more often than not, some form of cognitive impairment, he rudely interrupted me in in full flow saying …

“I’m not bothered about any of that. We want to just build some apartments and utilise the C2 Use Class to avoid paying any affordable housing contribution or Community Infrastructure Levy. We’ll just find some nursing agency and bung them few quid to carry out some home care visits and that should do it! It’ll be much cheaper doing it that way than having to pay the CIL and affordable housing money.”

I am pleased to report that this time; I did say exactly what I wanted to say at exactly the moment I wanted to say it. Only good manners – and the laws governing obscenity – prevent me from repeating it here.

On the flipside, I also work with some very good care operators and I was talking to one of them recently about his insistence on vastly exceeding the minimum floorspace requirements and standard of finishes. I was querying whether he might consider some economies as he wouldn’t be able to generate any additional income in the particular market he was venturing into. He simply smiled and said ‘don’t worry about the money: if the design is the best we can do and the quality of care is the best we can give, the profit will come.’ Happily, I have no reason to doubt him given his superb track record and very successful business.

As an industry we need to weed out the pretenders and make sure that the spotlight is shone brightly onto their businesses so that they can’t simply use the badge of elderly care to avoid section 106 levies. And finally, I am sorry to report that due to the space restrictions forced on me by the new format of the magazine, I have run out of space and so I am unable to bring you the list of the top ten worst care home operators as promised……perhaps next month…

Danny Sharpe

This article first appeared in Caring Times June 2017 edition

What’s in a name?

(This article first appeared in caring Times – June 2017 edition)














Some years ago, my wife and I packed our bags (and our dogs!) and went to live in Florida. Our task there was to take over the running of a failing Assisted Living Facility in the middle of the State and, having steadied the ship, to then go on and build a brand new Assisted Living Facility up in Orlando. I believe the phrase ‘how difficult can it be?’ was used somewhere along the line. Plenty of sunshine, common language, “it’ll be like a 2-3 year long holiday” I optimistically said. Well, needless to say, things didn’t quite work out like that.

Firstly, there’s the whole ‘same language’ thing. It was George Bernard Shaw who famously described England and America as ‘two countries divided by a common language’. On day one, I found out what he meant. I ventured out to a huge Walmart store in the middle of one of the blue collar, ‘rust belt’ neighborhoods which, in more recent times, propelled Donald Trump to the White House. I walked over and interrupted the conversation of two large Hispanic sales staff and asked if they could ‘possibly tell me where they kept the kettles’. Everyone in earshot stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. The silence was deafening. I confess I have never sounded more English than at that particular moment. I might as well have asked them if they could tell me who opened the batting for England in the first Ashes Test of 1936. Or, if perhaps, they fancied a game of cribbage after supper in the drawing room. After much deliberation, head scratching, confused squinting and me miming making a cup of tea, we finally decided that what I wanted was a ‘water kettle’ and they explained that they didn’t sell them. I dejectedly returned to the ALF to spend an infuriating afternoon in the admin office where my request for a few sheets of A4 paper was met with a blank stare. Turns out I wanted ‘eight and a half by eleven’. How was I to know? I have never measured it. I then found the letter I had subsequently written, pinned up on the notice board! I had to explain that this was a private letter and when I said I wanted someone to ‘post it’ for me, I meant put a stamp on it and send it in the mail – not ‘post it’ on the main notice board in the reception for all to see!

On the up side, I was very pleasantly surprised that the ‘elderly care home’ we had come to run was a world apart from its UK counterpart. An elderly care facility in America was clearly not a converted seaside boarding house with lino floors and hard backed chairs spaced out around the perimeter of a well-worn dining room. Neither was it a rabbit warren of small bedrooms with one large bathroom at the corridor end and a strong smell of ammonia assaulting the senses. No; the facility in Florida was spacious, well-appointed, filled with happy, busy, active people. It had a constant flow of visitors dropping in for all manner of classes, meals with friends, evening events, etc. I know the weather helps and the Americans are generally more outgoing as a nation, but even still, it was an eye opener for me. It was somewhere the residents aspired to be. I suppose the comparison was slightly unfair as the ALF movement in America caters for what we would consider residential, nursing and extra care residents all under one roof. This was several years ago and the standard of UK care homes has improved dramatically since, but I remember feeling how much more attractive the facility was there compared to a bog standard UK care home. In this instance the common terminology was again describing something quite different, but this time in a good way.

I was thinking about all of this whilst reading the latest report to come out of my alma mater – The School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University. The report was commissioned by Churchill Retirement Living and is based on a PHD Research project. It raises several interesting questions about the current market for ‘retirement living’: not least, the terminology itself. We still talk about over 55’s housing for example. The idea that I will need a specially adapted form of housing when I reach that great age in about 5 years’ time is laughable. Well it is to me anyway: you can keep your snide comments to yourself. Also, the idea that we ‘retire’ in the conventional sense is also out of the window now. Retirement these days can mean a second career for many people. It can mean a 30-40 year span of time. For others – and I include myself in this bracket – it is a meaningless phrase. I don’t want to stop doing what I enjoy doing to instead spend my time playing golf, which I only occasionally enjoy and I am not as good at. The baby boom generation and my lot – Generation X – want aspirational housing that reflects what we do and who we are. The Extra Care model is evolving very quickly and, in my view, it’s about time.

The older generation of pre-War babies was old at 55. They retired at 60-65 and, if they were lucky, carried on a life of ‘pottering’ in the garden and playing golf for a few years until they shuffled off this mortal coil conveniently freeing up much-needed housing for the Baby Boomers following them. The Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are a selfish lot. Living until they are 95, refusing to downsize, taking degree courses in the University of the Third Age and developing digital tech start-up businesses at 65. We need to find a way to meet their demands. We need to create aspirational housing that will attract this group out of their family homes and thus free up the much needed stock for the next generation. This means raising the bar. They are a very demanding lot. These are the folk who marched on the streets in the 1960’s for social change; this is the group who sent man to the Moon; let’s face it, this is the Rolling stones! They won’t go quietly or put up with a second-rate anything.

There are some great developers coming into this market and where the Americans led with their ALF’s and retirement communities, we can follow. But we need new terminology – let’s get rid of all of the previous ‘sheltered’ this, ‘assisted’ that, ‘extra’ the other, and lets develop housing which is actually wanted: apartments with large glazed balconies, developments with cinemas, coffee shops and swimming pools. Let’s make it a new use class of its own. Let’s make it a special case like we did with affordable housing. I’m going with ‘C5’ housing. It has no age connotations and – apart from sharing its name with a certain failed electric tricycle – it could actually be aspirational.

Danny Sharpe



Less of the bow tie and more of the rolled up shirtsleeves….it’s time to build

(This article first appeared in Caring Times April 2017 edition)

So, you want to build a brand new care home? That’s great. Let’s assume that you have followed my advice from last month and managed to acquire a fully-serviced, perfectly flat and square 1.5 acre plot of land in an area in desperate need of a 60 bed care home. Subject to planning, of course! Whilst we are dreaming…. let’s assume you have also applied for planning consent, the neighbours have all held a street party in your honour and written to the Council saying how much they are looking forward to your plans coming to fruition. Within the stated 8 weeks, the Local Council promptly deliver your planning consent (I said we were still dreaming) and you are ready to start building…

Your journey to this point has probably been overseen by your architect. If experience is anything to go by, your architect will either be (a) a woman called Liz with bright purple hair, a slogan t-shirt and red glasses; (b) an urban hipster with an ironic beard, no socks and trousers which need pulling up, or (c) a black polo-neck-wearing Saab driver of indeterminate sex. This is the person who has helped to realise your dreams thus far; this is the person who has created a beautiful design and brought to life your hopes and ambitions for your new building. What this is NOT, is the person you now want to oversee the process of getting your building built. No. What you need now is the exact opposite of this person. Where the architect was creative, you need someone practical; where they were free with your money in specifying expensive materials, you need someone with an eye on the bottom line. In short, what you need, is a Project Manager.

A Project Manager will not get caught up in the beauty of the morning sunlight glinting off a zinc roof. He will bluntly point out that this roof will only be seen by the window cleaner once a month. He will want to know why you aren’t using a single ply roofing membrane instead. Your architect will tell you the Project Manager is a Philistine and that he has no soul. Your accountant will thank you for putting someone in charge of delivering your project that isn’t ….well…an architect!

If you are new to construction and property development generally, it can be hugely daunting to move from the pretty, virtual images of your planning application to the reality of dealing with ground workers, builders and mechanical & electrical engineers. The enormity of what you have taken on will hit you like a speeding train. Meanwhile you will be telling the funding bank not to worry; that everything is under control and the budget and programme are all fine. Gulp! This is when your Project Manager becomes invaluable. A good Project Manager is like your big brother on the first day of your new school. He has been there many times before and will protect you from all of the potential hazards awaiting you.

Your Project manager will explain to you that there are, essentially, two main types of construction contract you can enter into to get your new care home built. (Extensions are often a different matter and we’ll assume for now that you are building a new, standalone 60 bed care home). The two approaches are known colloquially as ‘traditional’ and ‘design and build’. In a ‘traditional’ contract, the contractor simply constructs your building which has been fully designed by someone else (see above for main types of architect). In a ‘design and build’ contract, the builder is responsible for design. This is to hugely simplify the many variations on these themes, but it will suffice for now.

Under the traditional contract the design process is separate from construction, and full documentation is required before the contractor can be invited to tender for carrying out the work. Under these forms, you as the client would be responsible for producing the design and providing it to the contractor to build. The danger with this approach – apart from the flamboyant architect spending your money again – is that you, as the client, have full control over the design but little control over the way any changes or unforeseen events are dealt with. Your Project Manager will warn that this is where the costs can run away. It requires a huge amount of detail to be done up front with a very experienced design team who need to foresee all eventualities prior to the project starting. If problems are encountered with sourcing / supply of materials or delays with labour, or if there are problems with the design, the contractor will claim extra costs.

Under design and build, the contractor takes responsibility for the delivery of the project and any unforeseen events, problems with labour or materials supply, are all his to deal with. This is by far the best way to deliver a new 60 bed care home build. The trick is – and your project manager will tell you this – to give the contractor enough information so that you get the design you want but the liability for it rests with your builder and his sub-contractors and sub-consultants.

Your Project Manager will guide you through the minefield of important sounding documents like ‘collateral warranties’ and ‘conditions precedent’; he will act as your adviser dealing with the lawyers and funding banks. He will also undertake due diligence so that when your head is turned by a cheap price from a builder who is desperate to get the job, he will advise that all the signs are pointing to this contractor going bust – particularly if he tries to do your job too cheaply – and that is the last thing you want. When it comes to spending this much money on such a complex and lengthy process as building a new care home, you need someone with their shirtsleeves rolled up standing by your side, not someone with a bow tie and a faraway look in their eye.

Mystic Planning

(This article first appeared in Caring Times – march 2017 edition)

Those of a certain age will remember the 1970’s TV series ‘Kung Fu’ in which a Shaolin monk travels through the American Old West armed only with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts. Flashbacks to his training saw him being tutored by a blind Chinese mystic who trained him in the ways of Buddhist philosophy. Those of you, who are younger, think of Kung Fu Panda but substitute the animated Panda with a bald hippy and you get the general idea.

As I have now entered my 50th year, I feel it is time for me to take on the role of the teacher, don my orange robe and impart some of the wisdom I have gained over the years in the ancient and arcane practice of securing a grant of planning consent. So, if you’ll just sit cross legged on the floor, we’ll begin…

The first lesson comes before you get anywhere near the Local Development Framework or the (out of date) Local Plan. When buying a site do not, ever, buy it ‘unconditionally’. When asked if your offer is ‘subject to planning’? The answer is always “yes”. There are no exceptions to this rule. Buying a site unconditionally might give you the edge in the bidding process but you may find yourself the proud owner of a hugely contaminated acre of land in a Site of Special Scientific Interest, on the fringe of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, nestled in a Conservation Area with a thriving garden of Japanese Knotweed. There simply isn’t time beforehand to research all of the obstacles that might crop up; so don’t do it!

The second lesson is to manage expectations. If you are a practitioner, trying to secure a planning consent for your client, don’t be afraid to tell him that his desire to see a five storey building, with 50 parking spaces, on half an acre of land, on a suburban street of bungalows is unlikely to find favour with either the planning department or the neighbours. You’re good, but you’re not that good. There is no harm in taking on a challenge but give yourself a fighting chance. It seems that every scheme we do is either in, or on the fringe of, a Conservation Area, all have ecology issues to manage, most have sensitivities in the overlooking, massing and height of the proposed buildings, but these are manageable problems that good design will resolve. Some sites are ‘affordable’ i.e. ‘cheap’, because of the challenges they throw up and sometimes these sites are worth fighting for. It may take a long time, it will certainly involve a considerable amount of hard work, but just occasionally, a site will crop up that has only a 50% chance of being granted consent. These are the ones to invest your energies in. The 10% long shots are like placing a bet on the Grand National: not something any self-respecting professional gambler would ever do.

Next lesson is ‘engaging with stakeholders’. This is one of those arcane planning phrases on a par with the esoteric mutterings of Master Po from the 1970’s TV show. The old man would gaze sightlessly into the distance and quietly say something like:

“When one eye is fixed on the destination, you have only one eye to search for the way”…..

No-one had a clue what he was talking about but it sounded good. In fact ‘engaging with stakeholders’ just means “go and talk to the local people”. Don’t email them, don’t DM them on Facebook. Actually sit down with them and talk about the proposed scheme. I know this is a terrifying prospect and you will have to sit stoically whilst occasionally one will shout at you and tell you that this site will only be developed “over my dead body!” But for every professional NIMBY, there will be ten reasonable folk who are genuinely curious and who will have a local insight, which you could never hope to gain in the few weeks or months of your involvement. By the way, never hold a public meeting in the local church hall where the reasonable folk will sit at the back and listen whilst the local loudmouth(s) will harangue you for a full hour to the amusement of everyone else present. This isn’t ‘engaging with stakeholders’: this is just stupid.

The final lesson is that – and I am sorry to break it to you this way – there is no easy route. Getting a good planning consent is all about hard work, persistence, skill and patience. You will need design skills, you will need people skills and you will have to see each application as a marathon, not a sprint. Some planning officers will need to see you as the only applicant who understands and empathizes with their unmanageable workload and their impossible deadlines. Good manners, self-restraint and an appreciation of realpolitik will prevent you from telling them what you really think of their sloth-like approach to work and their manipulation of ‘flexi-time’ working. Other planners will need a kick up the behind and a strongly worded email to their departmental head. Once you have mastered the distinction between these, you too will be ready to don the orange robe and pass on your knowledge to the next generation of initiates.

What’s the Use?

(This article appears in the February 2017 edition of Caring Times magazine)

Planners like to keep things simple. If a building can be put neatly into a box and labelled as clearly one thing and not the other, then they can devise one of their much-loved flow diagrams to decide what you can legally do with it under Planning Law. They can follow the arrows and tell you whether or not you can extend it; paint it; add a satellite dish to it or start serving kebabs from it. That’s why they invented the Use Classes Order. This puts uses of land and buildings into various clearly-defined categories. It is generally the case that you will need planning permission to change from one ‘Use Class’ to another.

Working, as we do, in the design and development of care homes, we are mostly concerned with Use Class C2 which is used to classify residential institutions. This includes, amongst other things, residential care homes, hospitals and nursing homes. The other main residential classification is Use Class C3 which applies to most other types of housing. Where things become less certain, is when we move from 24 hour nursing or residential care and venture into the realms of residents having more than just an en-suite bedroom in a CQC-registered care home. We now have close care; extra care; independent living; assisted living; continuing care communities; sheltered housing; dementia villages and twilight-shady-pines retirement communities. Okay, I may have made that last one up, but there is still a raft of different housing types where residents have a degree of independence behind their own front door. That leads to uncertainty in the planning world. And planners don’t like that. Uncertainty leads to more work on their part. It necessitates them entering into nuanced arguments about the amount of care given; the tenure of the accommodation; the need for restrictive covenants linked to section 106 agreements, etc.

But does it matter? Who really cares whether your development is Use Class C2 or C3. Well you should for a start! If you are planning to develop accommodation for the elderly which may involve a degree of care and which cannot be easily slotted into a Use Class bracket, then you should care a great deal about the designated Use Class. The Use Class makes a huge difference to the amount of planning gain you might be expected to provide to help ease the passage of your planning application through the system.

While Central Government tells us on the news every night that it plans to build more and more accommodation to try and keep up with our growing population, it is often simultaneously cutting local government budgets to the bone. The result is that the cash-strapped local councils have, for some time now, been using (some might say abusing) the system of planning gain to recoup some of their budgets. These days when we submit a planning application for a new care home or extra care development, we practically go from the pre-app planning discussion straight to the cashier’s office where we are asked to turn out our pockets to help pay for new buses, roads, libraries, footpaths and perhaps a new statue of the Lord Mayor. In return for providing these much-needed facilities, we are given our planning consent certificate. It isn’t quite as blatant as this. But it’s not far off.

The old style section 106 agreement of unilateral undertaking is being replaced across the country by the new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). This aims to have developers pay for the impact of their development on local communities. So, where a new housing estate is planned which might bring a load of new young families with school age children, the developer will be asked to pay a contribution to a new school, for example. The levy isn’t always as cut and dried as this and we might be less suspicious if the officers involved weren’t wearing masks and striped jumpers when they asked for it …. but I digress. We were involved in a scheme recently where the CIL contribution worked out as over £300,000 if the site were to be classed as C3 and £0 if the site were to be classed as C2. So, getting it wrong can be very costly. And it isn’t always as simple as making sure everything is classified as C2 by reference to the provision of care, the proof of need for care, the establishing of pre-emption rights on the sale of properties, etc. all the things we wily practitioners do to make the case for C2. We are currently involved with a local authority which has zero rated C3 housing for CIL and yet which penalizes C2 accommodation. They have presumably decided that they have sufficient care accommodation but not sufficient general housing stock.

The provision of care accommodation is a continuously developing and evolving model. It is up to those of us who are leading the way in designing and developing these new models, to make sure that we maximise our budgets for the benefit of the residents who will eventually live in them, rather than helping to pay for another statue of the local Lord Mayor.