Friday, 28 December 2007

David & Goliath, or a Case Stranger than Fiction!

Sometimes I am asked to deal with a problem that everyone else has turned down i.e. ‘the lost cause,’ often these are the most satisfying and on the face of it challenging projects.

The strangest one last year was the owners of an ostrich farm based in the heart of a residential commuter area who wanted to build a family home on the site. Sounds reasonable one would think especially as the couple and their children in their twenties had been living in a mobile home on the site for ten years.

The couple had established a farm business which predominately was based on a breeding flock of some 40 female ostriches – they also had incubation and hatching facilities developed in the last few years so that they could sell young ostrich chicks and eggs.

The local Borough Council planning committee had turned down their application for an agricultural workers dwelling earlier that year, despite a Council Officer’s recommendation for approval. Although their agricultural consultant provided additional information – mainly financial and related data during the course of the previous year this did not change the elected Councillors minds, although Officers maintained their recommendation for approval throughout.

There was considerable local opposition to the business from neighbours, including the local Residents Association; it was believed that their representations had strongly influenced Councillors to go against their Officer’s advice. One or two Councillors in particular had been very vocal in their objection to the business – and it was believed to have clouded their judgement in their interpretation of the relevant Government criteria against which the business should be judged in a democratic society.

As the case had been refused a Local Council planning appeal it was now going to a Planning Public Inquiry within the next 6 weeks and they needed to get an argument ready for the planning application appeal and issue evidence to the Inspectorate quickly.

In agricultural dwelling cases there are two tests that the Government requires to be met before an agricultural tied dwelling can be built – the functional and financial tests.

There was no disagreement between the parties that the daily welfare needs of the ostriches meant the functional test was met. Furthermore, the financial test breaks down into a number of component parts as follows:-

“The unit and the agricultural activity concerned must have been established for at least three years” – the Council accept this test was met.

“The business must have been profitable for at least one of these last three years” – the Council accept this test was met.
“That the unit and the agricultural activity are currently financially sound” – again, the Council accept that this was met.

The fourth test is that the business must have a reasonable prospect of remaining so, i.e. profitable/viable/sound.

The stumbling point that was the key to the problem was the fourth test. It was this test that the Council and more especially the objectors did not accept as satisfied, and did not accept on the basis of the information that had been provided, including markets for the ostrich meat etc. that the business is likely to remain viable into the future.
So having met with the couple and their agricultural consultant at the farm I identified that the chair of the residents association happened to own the house next to the farm, also she had a long term happy relationship with the council officers and councillors and had a strong weight of local support.
I recognised that the solution was to the problem was to produce a business viability report to support the application the report needed to be heavily based around undeniable market research that proved a long term growth market for both the ostrich meat and the eggs.

The Council produced no professional evidence or other analysis to show that the market for ostrich products is likely to fail but argued that despite the reasonable past performance a large supermarket had tried to sell ostrich meat as a pilot and it had withdrawn the products due to poor sales.

The report that I produced within a week included an analysis on the likely future prospects for ostrich products within the UK- low fat, high protein, locally grown meats – sold at farmers’ markets and other specialist outlets and proved that the prospects for the business were excellent. Our key argument was that the meat produced should be marketed through what is now a vibrant farmer’s market sector where a large and growingly informed public are making food choices based on health, the environment and the wish to try new things. All of this market information was gathered using the internet.

So what was the result? The public enquiry was held and evidence was heard from the Council, the objectors and the owner’s team.

The chair of the enquiry then arrived at the decision to approve the application allowing the building of the house. The chair spoke a great length about how the decision had been swayed by the viability report’s evidence and the argument about the potential market and the change in public tastes and buying choices.

The lessons here are:

The devil is in the detail, good market research no matter how simply collected is always critical for any business situation.

Remember if you make sure that you have the right ammunition in your slingshot, then you too can fell a giant with a single shot.

Alan Briggs

Dynamic Business Strategies Ltd
Tel: 07917 446068


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