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13 Mar
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Planning Pre-Application - Worthwhile or Waste of Time?

An integral part of the planning process is engaging with Local Planning Authorities at the pre-application stage about development plans ahead of a full application.

This has long been viewed as a necessary evil by developers – who have lobbied the government over a lack of accountability, the quality of advice they receive and unnecessary delays to development.

In this guide, we'll delve into the inner workings of the pre-application process, assess its value and share some of our experiences with this unloved planning hurdle.

What's it all about?

As stated in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), early engagement is supposed to have the potential to significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system for everyone involved.

In the course of our work, we've come to see it as a way to build solid foundations with a council – enabling us to scope out potential issues ahead of time, consider the design and technical merits of a scheme and pencil in a timetable that we can work towards.

However, there are inevitable times when councils don't see eye to eye with proposed schemes and getting our pre-application foot in the door lets us gauge whether or not our clients should invest the time, effort and money in taking an application forward if the advice is not favourable.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Despite attempts to streamline planning in the UK in recent years, there's still some major disparities when it comes to the pre-application process.

To illustrate these, let's explore two of our recent experiences with this sometimes-unpredictable beast.

Council X

We've recently been engaging with an East Midlands based council regarding a development proposal for around 15 residential dwellings.  

From the day the pre-application request was made, the council were clear that they wanted several weeks to gather consultation responses. Even with the best-prepared authorities, it is unusual for Local Planning Authorities to put this level of discussion into pre-application meetings, which can at times only involve a single officer.

It was even more surprising when the council then gladly sent these responses over to us in advance of our scheduled meeting together. The respondents comprised of 11 consultees, including English Heritage, the County council, the Wildlife Trust, and the management of two airports.  

The breadth of the responses facilitated a highly productive meeting, providing us with the opportunity to consider all land use, policy and technical considerations of the proposed scheme.

This provided certainty for our clients on how they should progress their proposed scheme and the commercial implications of potential obligations - ensuring there will be no unwanted surprises as we take a planning application forward.

Council Y

Too often, however, we find ourselves engaging with a local planning authority that is either suffering from a lack of resource or isn't willing to be held accountable to the level and quality of advice they provide applicants. 

In another recent case, we submitted a pack of information to support an outline planning application for a housing development. This precedes a meeting with the local planning authority discussing the potential scheme, which in turn generates a written follow-up to give us something tangible to work from following the meeting.

In the council’s own guidance on the pre-application process, that written feedback should not be provided 'any later than 14 days from a meeting'.  Despite our best efforts in chasing it up, this written feedback took more than three months to arrive.  And when it did eventually show up, the feedback was basic in content and didn't provide any meaningful clarity on key issues affecting the application.

Obviously this type of feedback is far from ideal – leaving it up to consultants like us to strategise on how best to bring an application forward.

Council Z

As a third example, we recently found ourselves seeking advice from a local planning authority that would not even entertain our pre-application request for redevelopment of a brownfield site for residential development.

This was down to a planning officer considering that our proposed development was inappropriate due to the loss of open space on the site. This is without even seeing or hearing our evidence as to why the loss was justified against their own plan!

As such, our clients have now been deprived of the benefit of advice regarding highways, design or ecological matters. This could lead to significant risk over the quality of process that our clients are now paying for post-application.

We, of course, have progressed an application supported by strong justification and rationale to offer the best chance of success. But going about things in this way isn't in line with the NPPF and the purposes of seeking advice to engender cooperation and collaborative working to secure the best outcomes for everyone involved.

The Bottom Line

Councils charging for pre-application advice is now a wide-spread practice in the UK, but there remains a wide disparity in the quality of advice given to applications in pre-application.

Instances of poor-quality advice still occur too frequently and applicants should be able to expect more. There remains a distinct lack of accountability in terms of both in basic timescales for feedback and quality of advice provided. 

In some circumstances, this leads to generic advice, with councils not being drawn on the acceptability of proposals - hence nullifying the purpose of obtaining advice in the first place.

Whilst the ‘front loading’ of effort is time-intensive, those that excel in providing quality advice at this stage, do so as they understand the positive outcomes that can be achieved through early, collaborative working with developers and their agents. 

When this process works, it is of significant benefit to all and we remain strong advocates of seeking pre-application advice and judging how best to approach this and progress a scheme on a case by case basis.

And You?

If you've got any views on pre-applications or the NPPF in general – be sure to leave us a comment or let us know via Twitter. We always love to hear what you've got to say.

And if you're looking for advice on pre-applications or any aspect of the planning process, don't hesitate to get in touch today.

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