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An insider’s guide to the planning application system

Demystifying the application process, from the local authority’s point of view

22 November 2018

Architects attending the RIBA’s recent Guerrilla Tactics conference were treated to some insider tips on how the machinery of planning works in the real world, and how they can get the best out of it.

Presentations were given by members of Public Practice, a pioneering social enterprise which places talented architects and planners in local planning authorities to work alongside them.

One area of planning that regularly mystifies architects is the pre-planning process, which was explored by architect Rachel Hearn, Public Partnership’s placement in Havering, where she has worked on everything from estate renewal to a new masterplan for Romford.

Pooja Agrawal, Co-founder of Public Practice, introduces ‘Navigating the Planning System’ at the RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics 2018 conference. © Karla Gowlett

Hearn urged architects to engage early wherever possible, with the importance of early engagement rising with the complexity of a scheme. Deciding not to submit a pre-app and then trying to negotiate during the submission stage is not regarded as helpful by under-resourced planning departments.

She also suggested that it can be a good idea to bring the client along to a pre-app meeting; this makes the meeting more productive and less likely to result in a bland summary letter that commits to nothing. It is also an opportunity to build a relationship with the case officer.

‘Explain your design constraints and explain your solutions to them. You are trying to get the planning officer to share your vision for the site,’ explained Hearn.

Her guiding advice is to make every effort to be constructive rather than defensive, and to listen to how specific policies might be applied to your site. You should try to reach agreement on what the principles of community engagement will be and what the design principles are: come away from the meeting with something useful.

If a non-constructive meeting leaves them with no other option, planners will fall back on the summary letter that simply regurgitates planning policies, warns Hearn.

Currently placed in the GLA’s Royal Docks team as a design adviser, Jennifer Gutteridge took architects through the submission to determination period. She began by advising them to regard negotiation as a positive process.

It is an opportunity to find out as much as you can about what planners are thinking, what concerns they may have and how you can be creative about addressing their concerns. It is also an opportunity to get to know your case officer, which can pay dividends.

‘Make the most of any windows that open up for negotiations, such as amendments, and use these to build up trust,’ she counsels. ‘And if a planner phones you up, grab that opportunity to show that you are collaborative and want to make the application work.’

Gutteridge suggests architects should rediscover the phone, as it remains a useful tool for informal conversations. Planners, conservation officers and urban design officers are more likely to be candid in conversation but will be far more guarded in any written communications, including emails.

Amendments within the determination process tend to be highly discretionary. Planners will not be happy to receive a series of amendments (unless they are very small), as that is rarely the sign of a good scheme. Gutteridge pointed out that planners are unlikely to spend time asking for amendments if they are likely to oppose an application.

This means that amendment requests might indicate that an application is seen as borderline. What many architects may not appreciate is that planners will generally want borderline applications to succeed: this removes the risk of an application being left open to appeal and an unpredictable judgement from a planning inspector.

Lucia Cerrada Morato, who is working on best practice guidance for high density development at Tower Hamlets, provided an explanation of planning conditions. She pointed out one aspect of them that may be of encouragement to architects going through the planning process. Some local authorities may choose to use Section 106 agreements, once planning permission has been granted, to require retention of the architect, or a retained role as design certifier.

Thanks to all the members of Public Practice.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Places, planning and communities.
As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

Posted on 22 November 2018.

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