Looking at the pre-application process, it remains an element of the planning system which offers a veritable plethora of approaches and outcomes. As with most things in life the first thing to consider is cost - below is a sequence of amounts for your consideration:
There is no mathematical puzzle or formula to be solved here, just a head scratcher of a different sort. These figures are the different charges by a selection of local planning authorities (LPAs) to attend one pre-app meeting and provide a single written response for a “strategic development” (usually defined as 150+ residential units and/or 5,000sqm+ of other uses). Setting aside the frankly eye-watering cost of (f), it is the vast divergent cost of engaging with LPAs at the pre-application stage that is most striking. It is unlikely to be a surprise to hear that (f) is charged by one council in London. What may be more surprising is that both (a) and (b) are in the West Midlands. LPA (b) offers a free pre-application advice service as a means of attracting prospective investors and to encourage engagement between developers and council officers at the earliest stage, to try and ensure that the planning process runs smoothly. This is in stark contrast to (a), where the LPA recently stopped providing a pre-application advice service altogether, due to a lack of resources.
The differences between all of these charges raise a question about how they are derived by LPAs. There is obviously a balancing act to be struck between providing a service that helps speed up the planning process, whilst also recouping sufficient fees to ensure that the resources required for pre-application work do not have a diversionary impact on the ability to determine applications. Everyone in the development sector is aware of the under-resourcing in planning departments and it is difficult to begrudge a LPA which charges a higher amount particularly when it provides a valuable service (unlike monies collected from speed cameras and parking tickets!). However, when this is viewed through the prism of LPAs that are willing and/or able to offer a similar service for free, it gives credence to the argument that in the planning system not all schemes are created equal.
This inconsistency is further magnified by the often varying quality of pre-application responses received. Clients are loathe to pay high fees time after time, when they don’t receive much face time with LPAs and have previously received a poor written response which merely cites relevant policy without offering a “real” assessment of the proposals presented to them, or when positive discussions at a meeting aren’t translated into written advice. This is a particularly tough balance for officers to strike, as they are often keen to be positive but then don’t want to include any hostages to fortune in responses which may cause problems further down the line. However, in more cases than most, it leads to the same response from clients: “What value are we getting for our money?”.
The other matter to be considered in the pre-application process is one of time. Given the ongoing debate about housing delivery, it is perhaps surprising that scrutiny rarely looks at the timescales involved in the pre-application process. As with the scale of pre-application charges, there are no regulations governing timescales for pre-application engagement responses. Whilst LPAs often provide indicative timescales on their websites for how long the process can take - generally one month from submission to a meeting being held and another month for the issue of a written response - such timescales are rarely kept to and there is little or no accountability for doing so. For example, on a recent project the client had to wait for over three months from the date of the meeting to receiving a written response. Such delays often have a significant impact on the delivery of development, as developers generally have to avoid committing fees and resources to projects until they receive a positive written response from the LPA. But just to add, having paid £12,000 to LPA (f), the council’s response was received very promptly!
Whilst we should be loathe to add another layer of bureaucracy to the planning system, considering the above issues together, it is apparent uniformity - ought to be applied to the pre-application process. Here are some suggestions for how it could be improved:
Include pre-application fee guidance (as with application fees) in the NPPG, calculated on the scale and use of proposed developments. These could be maximum figures, so that LPAs not wanting to charge full amounts could apply lower charges;
Allow a portion of pre-application fees paid to be deducted from application fees and/or planning performance agreements (PPAs) for major planning applications. This would encourage developers to engage more thoroughly at the pre-application stage, in the knowledge that the fees they pay aren’t being “wasted”;
MHCLG should provide a template for written pre-application responses (akin to a decision notice) so that they are consistent in format and can provide more certainty; and,
The new regulations should set out standardised “determination periods” for providing pre-application responses which are linked to the scale of proposals and/or extent of pre-application submission documents. The specified time periods would be devised to acknowledge that for some major schemes, inputs are often required from various technical officers at LPAs.
It is obvious that some of the suggested pre-application changes outlined above may not be feasible, given the current status of resourcing at many LPAs. However, if the planning process is to be sped up to improve the rate at which schemes are being delivered all stages of the system need to be explored and refined.
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