Interview: Adam Larkin, Director of Planning

3 June 2024

This month, we caught up with Adam Larkin, Director of Planning here at Gravis, who manages major projects in our Belfast and Edinburgh offices across a variety of development sectors including power stations, renewable energy projects and infrastructure. Adam discussed everything from the similarities and differences between the planning systems in Northern Ireland and his native New Zealand, his previous life as a professional athlete with Ulster Rugby before joining Gravis, his current involvement in our large portfolio of renewable energy workstreams, and more.

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Adam – you moved to Ireland all the way from New Zealand back in the early noughties. What brought you here, and how did you find what must have been in some ways quite a culture shock for you? 

Yes, in a previous life I was a professional rugby player for 12 seasons and was fortunate enough to spend 8 of these here in Ulster, which is interesting as my grandmother was born here, so I’ve come full circle. Apart from the lack of a proper summer, it was not a culture shock at all – the people here are very similar to those back home – hardly surprising when so many of the population back in NZ have British and Irish roots.

Before you left New Zealand for greener pastures, you got your degree in Planning from the University of Auckland and worked as a Development Planner for North Shore City Council there for a time. What sort of projects were you working on back then? 

It was my first 2 years out of university before professional rugby came along in the mid 90’s, so it was pretty straightforward stuff; smaller residential and commercial schemes for the most part and providing advice to the public. The planning system over there in urban areas is zone based, so far less subjectiveness involved which can be a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. The best part was that I was based in a Council satellite office located in a lovely seaside suburb with a great beach on the doorstep. I was the only planner there with my own office with a fridge which came in handy on a Friday afternoon. I was even able to wear shorts in the summer! The things you remember!

When you did arrive here, it wasn’t to pursue planning at first but to slot into the centres and then at out-half for Ulster Rugby! Having played professional sport for eight seasons with the province, what are your fondest memories? Are there any transferable skills between the rugby pitch and the planning sphere? 

The playing days were great times I look back at fondly. The game hadn’t long been professional so to be paid to do something you had previously done purely for the love of it was unthinkable only a few years earlier. I was very lucky to go through the transition of the game from amateur to professional in the mid 90’s playing alongside bricklayers, bus-drivers, doctors and lawyers so I have great respect for the amateur game today – the professional game would not exist without it. My fondest memories at Ulster were the Friday night fixtures at Ravenhill and winning the Celtic League as it was called back then and the Celtic Cup. We had a very strong home record, only losing a couple of times at home during a 2 or 3 year spell and that included playing the European power houses of Leicester, Toulouse and Stade Français. We weren’t particularly strong on the road though, whereas recent Ulster teams have been far more successful winning big games away from home. In terms of transferable skills, the only comparison I can make is in relation to work ethic. Whatever profession you are in, you need to have dedication and work hard to progress and give yourself the best chance to succeed.

When you stepped away from rugby, you made the transition back into planning. What would you say are the similarities and differences in the planning systems between Northern Ireland and New Zealand, if there are many? What could we learn from this comparison?

It’s been quite some time since I worked under the NZ planning system, however at the time it was far more streamlined with approvals measured in days as opposed to months or years. In urban areas in particular, the system is zoned based with strict parameters relating to land use, building density and size which gives more certainty to developers but less flexibility. I understand that now with expanding populations in the main cities, there is an urgent need to provide more housing and with that comes pressure on services, infrastructure and the environment which makes decision making more complex and time consuming. No matter where you are based, the planning system needs to strike the right balance to ensure effective and efficient decision making that supports sustainable growth, though not at the expense of unacceptable impacts upon the environment and community.

What sort of work are you managing at present?

In the last 10-15 years we have seen a huge push for decarbonization and greater use of renewable energy generation. I am managing applications for some very large electricity generation projects. As a firm we can handle any applications for any sector of built development, but my team in Gravis has a very strong track record in energy and infrastructure – especially projects using gas, wind, solar, battery, energy from waste and biogas. Everything involved with the drive to Net Zero is shaping development. It’s a very exciting time for planning and I’m glad our firm is at the heart of so much of this work.

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