Planning Pre-App Advice – a way to “streamline” a bureaucratic process or a “stitch-up”?

Owl has received this review of planning “Pre-Application Advice” from a Correspondent experienced in reviewing planning applications.

Owl thinks it presents a compelling case for the new EDDC regime to look at the lack of transparency and community involvement in the current practices it inherited. The new regime might also care to review its scale of charges compared to those of other authorities such as Cornwall Council.

Correspondent:

I recently watched a Civic Voice* webinar given by Gavin Parker and associates of Reading University, on Pre-application Advice. You may never have heard of pre-application advice and if you have it may still be a mystery to you, as it is to me, and I am sure, to many people.

So what is “pre-app” advice? 

Developers can pay for Planning Officers advice on potential developments before submitting their planning application. Logically, it does seem a good idea that developers have planning guidance before they embark on expensive planning applications. Government encourages it and it is now mainstream practice in most Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). It is seen as a way to speed up the planning process.

A developer approaches a LPA’s planning department with a view to develop a site. Planning officers can advise if this is likely to be a feasible option or not. If it is feasible they can advise on the relevant policies which will have to be followed to gain approval. The advice is given on an “informal” basis that will not prejudice the determination of any future planning application. The majority of LPAs and developers do not involve the community at this early stage.

Any submitted planning application should then cover all the necessary policies, paving the way for the application to be approved. If the application should be refused by a planning committee, or under delegated authority, then there is a strong possibility that this would be overturned on Appeal. So, when the application emerges it appears a “done deal”,because of course, there are likely to be no material planning objections that the community can use at this late stage. This leaves much discontent and frustration. 

There is no oversight to this practice. There are diverse approaches within LPAs and many imbalances. LPAs can charge what they wish. Across the country pre-app fees now make up 10-15% of planning department income (£47m in total in the country last year). Some LPAs make a profit and some just recover the cost of the service. 

Where is the money used? Again there are many answers. It may go back into the planning budget or may be transferred to other services e.g. social care.

Is this work being carried out at the expense of other planning matters? No-one knows but we see in East Devon that “enforcement” appears to be very low down planning priorities.

Should there be community engagement?

There are many aspects of this process that have always worried me, but, given we have a Localism Act, where is the community input?

Do you remember in 2010 the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition declaring:

“There are, however, some significant flaws in the planning system that this Government inherited. Planning did not give members of the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives. Too often, power was exercised by people who were not directly affected by the decisions they were taking. This meant, understandably, that people often resented what they saw as decisions and plans being foisted on them

To further strengthen the role of local communities in planning, the Act [Localism] introduces a new requirement for developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for certain developments. This gives local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals”.

It is a legal requirement under the Localism Act for the local community to be consulted at the pre-app. stage for the siting of wind turbines and shale gas drilling but not at this stage for the siting of 500 plus homes (as in GESP)! 

Some councils in urban areas do involve neighbourhood planning groups and neighbourhood forums at the pre-app. stage but this is not a universal practice.

Our next door neighbour, Cornwall Council, has a published guide to aid developers involve local communities “Planning & Sustainable Development Service Pre-application Community Engagement”

It is understandable that developers need a safe place initially to approach LPAs and they can argue “commercial confidentiality” at almost any stage. But communities need transparency and, if you believe in localism, a voice. Some LPAs and developers are trying to solve this problem.

However, if this does not happen it just looks like a “stitch-up”.

There are very few submitted planning applications on the EDDC web-site which include any pre-application advice.

Publication of pre-app correspondence, redacted if necessary, should be a legal requirement as it would increase transparency and hopefully, trust.

 So how does EDDC practice fit into this?

For a start EDDC has no community involvement at the pre-app. stage. Would it not be a good idea to follow Cornwall’s example? After all there are 17 “made” neighbourhood plans in the district with many more to follow. These communities have adopted local planning policies and need a voice.

EDDC charges to developers appear cheap compared to other authorities. Costs for a meeting/request for large scale major schemes including residential development of more than 200 houses- £900: for medium major developments £750.

Cornwall charges for large major schemes – £4980 or Desktop only £2500; for less than 300 but more than 10 homes- £3270 or Desktop only £1700.

Another LPA charges £3,000 per hour for very large, £2,000 for major developments which makes EDDC’s charges seem very reasonable. One wonders if this covers the cost and if not, why not? Surely developers are not being subsidised by the council?

In addition EDDC also offers a Members Advisory Panel, a group of senior officers and Councillors and other interested parties for major applications where developers or their agents can give a presentation.

EDDC Case Study – The Blackhill Quarry application – 17/3022 MOUT

This is one of few applications to have the pre-app advice recorded. It gives an interesting view of how the system works. 

The 2017 application to construct additional buildings to Blackhill Quarry within the Pebblebed Heaths European designated site includes pre-app. advice on the web-site.

The landowners Clinton Devon Estates asked for pre-planning advice in Oct 2017 to build one unit for Blackhill Engineering and five additional buildings for “other businesses” in the decommissioned quarry.

They were advised:

“it is considered that an application for the proposal to which the pre-application enquiry relates would not comply with the provisions Strategy 7 and Policy E5 of the EDLP. However, should appropriate justification be submitted to support expansion of the existing business and additional building for their use may be able to be supported as a departure from policy given the economic benefits of retaining an existing employer. The five speculative industrial buildings would not receive officer support.”

In Dec 2017, just 2 months later, a justification was submitted with the outline planning application that all the buildings were required for Blackhill Engineering. Full details on East Devon Watch 

Conclusion

To conclude, public trust must be at the forefront of Planning. 

The country needs more housing of the right sort in the right place and we must all work together to deliver this. Community involvement in the early stages of the planning process increases public trust, obstacles are removed and the process is accelerated. 

* Civic Voice is the national charity for the civic movement in England. We make places more attractive, enjoyable and distinctive. We promote civic pride.

 

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