Is local authority pre-application planning advice worth it?
Pre-application advice has been introduced in the past few years as a means to formalise the initial stages of the planning process.
Previously, applications started their life as a quick call or email to the planning officer to sound out whether a submission was worth making. To many people this was an important part of the planning process and often acted as either a warning or reassurance to many potential applicants before they embarked on the time and expense of putting together the planning submission.
However, local authorities were under pressure to meet performance targets on planning applications, and as a result planning departments reduced their resourcing on the pre-application stage. Eventually, local authorities realised that they could charge for this service, and the current system was born.
Local authorities are now allowed to charge a fee to consider an initial enquiry, before a formal planning submission is made. Fees start from typically around £180.00 and rise according to the size of the proposed development. The applicant has the choice to apply for basic or a detailed response, and the latter involves the involvement of key consultees (such as the highways officer, ecology officer etc).
We, like a number of other architects and planning consultants in our area, have discussed the merits of pre-application advice among ourselves; and it is fair to say that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in the system. The quality of advice we receive varies greatly from one authority to another, and it also depends on which officer is allocated the task of writing the response.
We have looked into a number of the responses we’ve had from one authority over the past 12 months, and we’ve had more cautious responses than optimistic ones. The planning officers appear to be trying to find reasons why the development cannot take place, rather than focus on the National Planning Policy Framework guidance of viewing applications in a positive and proactive manner and making a presumption in favour of sustainable development.
No guarantee of a smooth ride
The fact you receive positive pre-application advice doesn’t always mean you are guaranteed a smooth ride when you eventually submit your planning application. We have come across examples where sites which have received positive planning advice, and yet the eventual planning application was problematic. Conversely, we have a number of projects where we’ve received negative pre-application advice, and yet we have gained planning consent. The outcome of the pre-application process therefore doesn’t necessarily relate to the result of the eventual planning application.
Some authorities have openly stated that the use of pre-application advice improves the level of discussion and access between the applicant / agent and the planning officer during the later planning application. I find this attitude to be extremely disappointing and contrary to the spirit of the planning system. After-all, pre-application advice was introduced as a voluntary process open to all applicants before they make their planning application for reasons given earlier.
It is a separate process to the eventual planning application and should be treated as such by local authorities. It certainly wasn’t introduced to create a two-tier system with preferential treatment offered to those who have paid for both pre-application advice and an eventual planning application.
Furthermore, in most cases there is no mechanism for speaking to the planning officers if you feel the pre-application advice you’ve received is lacking or of a poor quality. The system needs clarification.
I regret to say that with certain authorities and officers, the quality of advice and insight is lacking and has left me wondering whether the cost and time of the process is really worth it? The system is therefore very inconsistent across the country, and we do think twice before making pre-application advice requests to certain authorities, while not giving a second thought to approaching others.
Do your research and be clear about what you want to know
Therefore, if you do decide to make a pre-application advice submission, we recommend that you make two key steps.
Firstly, do your research on the local authority and their attitude to pre-application advice. Do they use the system properly? Do they have a reputation for providing constructive advice? Will they honour their pre-application advice when you eventually submit a planning application?
Secondly, in order to get the maximum benefit out of the process, make sure that the initial submission is focused on the key issues for which you need answers. Make it clear what you already know about the site and whether any technical reports already exist (e.g. bat survey, flood map searches, highways reports and so on); and state in the application what you’d like to know. We have found that this approach has given us the best results, although don’t be surprised if the eventual response reiterates what you’ve already told the planning officer in the original submission.
However, in some cases, we have received some quality advice and reassurance at pre-application stage which has been of great use to both ourselves and our client going forward.