If you have a major or contentious proposal, you’re very likely to save time and resources in the long run if you submit a pre-application enquiry or ‘pre-app’. It can be based on the minimum of design work but enables you to engage early with a Local Planning Authority and stakeholders to establish their position on the principles of development and the key planning issues you’re likely to come up against with any formal application.

If you’re unsure what a pre-app process involves, how to get started and what sort of information you should provide, here’s a few pointers that might be worth knowing:

Decide on its Purpose

Your pre-app doesn’t necessarily have to be exhaustive; you can use it simply to establish the principle of a development/use or to explore a whole range of issues. Alternatively, you can submit a series of consecutive pre-apps, each providing a further level of detail on the previous, which means that any eventual application is effectively agreed by the time of submission.

See it as a strategic tool that can help navigate your way through to your final set of proposals, isolating the critical issues and risks en-route. Whatever your strategy, you’ll get more out of your enquiry if you’re very clear on its purpose from the outset. However, be aware that you can’t generally use pre-apps for small domestic developments (e.g. extensions), but they should be viable for single new dwellings or changes of use.

Check out Local Guidance

There is no national format for pre-app enquiries, so look to each LPA for their individual protocols – most now have their own online guidance so make this your first port of call for advice on content, procedures and fees. If your proposals don’t ‘fit’ their standard form or need further explanation, a clear supporting letter should suffice instead.

Identify the Minimum Requirements

Generally, the more information you provide, the more informed and useful the LPA’s response will be. At a minimum, LPA’s will require a site plan and description of development, but if you have access to baseline information that would help them to understand your site better (and would be required further down the line anyway, such as topo and tree surveys), then there is little point in stalling on this now.

Assemble your Drawings

Illustrate your proposals with a detailed site layout and sketch elevations/sections to provide an appreciation of context, scale and massing. Photos and street scene sketches are also invaluable. In sensitive settings, a draft Design and Access and/or Heritage Statement can be useful at this stage to firmly establish design parameters (prevailing storey heights, building lines, the significance of assets etc) and will be essential to your later submission, so are not wasted documents.

Explain your Proposals

Support your enquiry with a planning statement (or robust letter) which documents the planning history, sets out the relevant current policy context and describes your proposals in detail. Report any preliminary public consultation that has been carried out, and the same for any marketing exercises. If you’re introducing a new use that might create management or transport logistics, think ahead about these and try to pre-empt the Council’s concerns – for instance, how would a new cafe be serviced in terms of opening hours, stock deliveries and refuse collections; what level of traffic movements are anticipated? You may as well address these now if the information is available, as you’ll most certainly have to later.

Make your Requests Clear

Clarify the planning issues you specifically want guidance on, as this avoids any ambiguity and enables the LPA to focus their response. List and seek agreement on the information you intend to submit with a full application and request they add to this if there are any omissions – this will save time for all parties at validation stage. Also, use the exercise to agree all the site constraints with the LPA (is there contamination? are there any ecological interests? what about heritage assets and their significance?) such that you can be fully prepared on these issues for your formal submission.

Submit Directly

There is no facility for submitting pre-apps via the planning portal yet, so send your enquiry directly to your LPA (electronic is quicker and easier, although paper submissions should still be accepted). The same applies for the fee, and most LPA’s now have online facilities for paying these directly and swiftly. Note that pre-app fees have VAT added, as they’re not a standard regulatory function for LPA’s as applications are.

Understand your Timeframe

Once registered, you should receive confirmation of your LPA case officer and a timeframe for a response. It’s usually around a 30 working day turnaround on written feedback, but it’s worth approaching the officer early in this period to establish communications. Most LPA’s offer an additional meeting service for major projects, charged at fixed or hourly rates, although make sure you explicitly request this from the outset. It’s unlikely that you’d be granted meeting time for a minor development, although you could always offer an accompanied site visit which at least affords an opportunity to explain the proposals in context and to agree on any obvious site constraints.

Remember, it’s not Binding

Be mindful that LPA’s aren’t beholden to their pre-application advice in the same way as a planning consent, so there are no guarantees it will hold indefinitely. That said, it should still provide the best-informed ‘steer’ at the time and will almost always make the formal application process smoother, so if your timescale permits it’s a relatively low-risk option worth pursuing.

So, once you’ve received and digested the LPA’s response you should be in a more informed position to start firming up your formal proposals, commissioning any further work and counting down to submission. Or, of course, heading back to the drawing board if your plans are well off the mark. Either way, the pre-app enquiry is an invaluable tool at your disposal and can be used to quite a strategic effect – don’t overlook its usefulness.