Five reasons why pre-application advice is so important

Securing planning consent for development proposals, whether large or small, can be a complex process, and involves a great deal more than simply filling in an application form and submitting some plans.

It makes sense, therefore, to seek the advice of the decision maker before going ahead with a submission.

So, why are so many applicants tempted to cut pre-application advice out of the process? It’s true that local planning authorities (LPAs) are under huge resourcing pressures and pre-application advice can lengthen an already arduous process.

But, we’re convinced by our own experiences that it’s worth putting in this effort up front.

THE VALUE OF PRE-APPLICATION PLANNING ADVICE

Here’s our five top reasons why we advise clients not to skip this important stage in the planning process.

1. Identify critical issues upfront

No-one knows the local planning policies better than the planning officers themselves. More than that, their understanding of what else is going through planning in the area, coupled with their appreciation of wider strategic objectives for future development means their advice and insight is invaluable to glean at this early stage.

As NPPF states, the more issues that can be resolved at pre-application stage, the greater the benefits.

Engaging in early dialogue before submitting your planning application means you will identify critical issues that are likely to cause delay at submission if not appropriately dealt with. This could be, for example, agreeing the scope of a retail impact assessment or making sure that you incorporate a newly-approved housing scheme into your traffic modelling.

2. Identify opportunities for betterment

Just as pre-app unearths critical issues upfront, it also provides an opportunity for joined up thinking and allows both parties to work together to achieve more.

For example, if your scheme forms part of a wider urban extension, pre-app provides the opportunity to make sure proposed footpaths across multiple sites align, so to achieve permeability across a wider area.

3. Give advance notice of a major or complex application

Beyond the obvious value in identifying the critical issues at play, the pre-application process gives the LPA fair warning of a large application about to land on their desk.

Planning officers won’t be able to push everything else to the side the moment your application lands so the pre-app process is useful for allowing senior staff time to consider how they will best use their team’s resources.

It’s worth flagging that there is a serious resourcing issue in planning departments right across the country, resulting from government funding cuts over the past decade. And officers won’t appreciate being surprised by a potentially complex submission that they weren’t aware was on its way.

Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs), where the applicant agrees to pay an additional fee, were introduced to better resource larger applications. The funds are intended to directly resource the processing of the application to ensure a timely determination period. By all accounts these agreements vary in their success and by no means guarantee a responsive LPA.

4. Agree validation requirements

The pre-application process confirms what documentation should support the application submission.

Whether it’s a heritage statement or a bat survey, if the council requires one, officers will delay validation (which starts the clock on the determination period) until one is submitted.

NPPF (paragraph 44) requires a council to publish a list of validation requirements, but it’s always useful to confirm that both sides are in agreement. It can save huge amounts of time (not to mention frustration) to agree a definitive list of what information needs preparing, and therefore, whether you need to instruct any new surveys.

5. Reduce the number of planning conditions

Finally, early dialogue can identify the opportunity to provide extra details as part of your submission to front end your application. By submitting material samples or a detailed refuse management plan, for example, you can potentially reduce the number of planning conditions attached to your permission.

The fewer conditions, the quicker you can get them discharged and the quicker you can get on site.

A CAUTIONARY TALE

On numerous occasions we have had to step in mid-way through a project to rescue an application that is floundering because the developer (or its architect) has tried to manage the planning process without a planning consultant on board.

Most recently, at Old Shoreham Road, Hove, we were instructed to take on a proposal for a new dwelling on an infill site that had already been through the planning system and been refused more than once.

With the ball in our court, and armed with details from the previous refusals, we engaged in pre-application discussions with officers to clarify precisely what was critical in design terms and what would enable them to support the scheme.

Our revised design addressed the principal issues raised in previous submissions, whilst still meeting our client’s requirements. The application was approved within 11 weeks of submission, under delegated powers.

It’s a lesson we see play out time and again, and should serve as a cautionary tale to all those thinking of side stepping the process.

AN IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE

There are circumstances or contractual requirements which prevent you from engaging with the pre-application process. Or, cases where the planning history is so clear that pre-app would not add anything of value that you don’t already know.

Yet rather than that being the assumption, it should be a decision you make when you form the planning strategy at the outset. And where it isn’t needed, it’s especially important to have carried out due diligence so you can understand what will be the material considerations for the application.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Yes, pre-application advice is caveated and doesn’t guarantee a planning consent, especially on the more complex proposals. And, yes, planning departments are extremely under-resourced and this can have an knock on effect on the availability of pre-app services.

But, we remain convinced that it’s still the best route to take in order to address issues early on and deliver the best possible schemes.

It’s why we are proud to be an architectural and planning consultancy. By understanding how to work with the planning system, our architects and planners talk to each other about the best ways to address planning concerns early on, to deliver better results for our clients.

If your scheme has hit difficulties through planning and you need a fresh perspective, get in touch.