Making better use of pre-apps

Pre-apps can be valuable, but check what is on offer.

14 June 2017

Should architects be making more use of the pre-application advice services offered by planning authorities? Pre-apps have their advocates as well as critics, but the argument against is usually based on its implementation by some local planning authorities (LPAs), rather than the tool itself.

The obvious benefits: they can give an early insight into the LPA’s likely approach to the planning application and help understand what supporting documentation will be required for validation purposes. An early meeting can also introduce new ideas into the brief.

Proposal for penthouse addition in Camden by Somerset-based Michael FitzGerald. He says he finds the pre-app process invaluable and uses it regularly, but finds London fees high. Image © Michael FitzGerald Architects.

Chair of the RIBA planning group Ruth Reed, whose practice Green Planning Studio is all about winning consents, suggests a number of scenarios in which pre-apps can be valuable: where there is an element of negotiation such as planning gain or a trade-off, where projects are located in conservation areas, or where they are complex and the LPA’s approach hard to predict.

They can also be useful where a previous application has been refused, unless of course the planning officer’s response has already made it clear what needs addressing in order for a fresh application to succeed.

But architects need to find out what sort of pre-app service is on offer, as the value of advice varies widely from one LPA to another. They should also check the level of information required for the service before quoting for this to the client, Reed cautions.

Some LPAs will give advice on the principle of development; others will require detailed proposals before they will comment, so it is useful to be prepared.

Fellow Planning Group member Philip Waddy, whose practice West Waddy ADP has its own planning arm, suggests that the key factor is the quality of the response that can be expected from the LPA.

A ‘good pre-app’ is one that offers a clear – positive or negative – opinion of the overall merits of a development.

There is, however, an argument that because pre-app advice is not binding on the council it may have little value.

‘Some officers simply state the relevant planning policies that will apply in assessing a proposal but conspicuously avoid giving any opinion as to whether the proposal is deemed to comply. We call it sitting on the fence,’ says Waddy.

‘In my career of over 30 years I have seen the planning profession become gradually less confident about giving an opinion on such matters and I wonder if it is because of fear that the elected Councillors will arrive at a different conclusion to the officers.’

Some authorities may take months to respond, making it potentially quicker to lodge a formal application and await feedback.

Reed suggests that clients must be advised of that fact prior to submitting a pre-app. They should also be advised that they have no control over the length of the process as it is not covered by planning legislation.

The council should be made aware by the architect if the client wishes for the process to be confidential, and the client advised in turn if this cannot be guaranteed.

Waddy does see the positive side of the pre-app process, and says a good pre-app can be invaluable. It can speed up development by avoiding delays associated with withdrawal of schemes destined for refusal and their resubmission. It also enables the applicant to establish the planning arguments before the scheme goes public and triggers responses from those opposed to development, whether or not they are material to the planning process.

‘Pre-application responses can be a very helpful tool in taking some of the risk out of applying for planning permission,’ says Reed.

‘Establishing a good dialogue with the planning department can also be very helpful in getting a successful outcome for an application, however with the high turnover of staff and poor resources, LPAs do not always deliver the service they would wish to.’

Thanks to Ruth Reed, director, Green Planning Studio; Philip Waddy, partner, West Waddy ADP

by Neal Morris

This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for Practice News:

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