It’s good to talk and the consultation process is an important part of the planning process, be it for a development proposal, policy production, site allocations or highways works. Consultation moves through the primary evolution of a scheme, through the determination process, discharge of conditions and obligations, through construction and to potentially even when a project is operational. There are however distinguishable parts to this process and today’s blog is concerned with part 1 – the pre app process.

The question for today is ‘why is this important?’ If you think this is an element of the process that you can get away without doing then think again. Any project in a sensitive area (conservation area, an area of landscape quality, habitat protection etc), of a contentious nature in terms of use, density of development or loss of a beloved local building or use, or of a medium to large size will require this.

This has become a fundamental part of the planning process. Not only is it advocated by government and enshrined in legislation, but it is an expectation of Local Planning Authorities, statutory consultees and increasingly local communities. Bet there is some form of Neighbourhood Forum or Neighbourhood Planning Group where you live, work, or want to develop a site.

It sets the scene for your development proposal, it enables you to set the agenda for discussion with the LPA and local communities and the relevant amenity groups.

There are obviously instances that will generate interest – even uproar. Particularly when a proposal involves ‘change’ – generally any kind of change, but particularly perceived impacts on personal property, someone’s amenity, the character and appearance of heritage assets, views, a beloved local building or use or even trees. Any type of project can be considered sensitive and contentious by someone, so it’s better to address this at the earliest possible stage.

There are two aspects to this process. The first is the formal submission to the LPA, which generally comprises a package of written information including a description of the scheme concept, locational information, a summary of the relevant policy issues and an outline of the consultation process that will be undertaken – don’t forget the fee!

The second is engagement with the LPA, the public and statutory consultees through presentations, exhibitions, individual meetings and increasingly other forms of social media. Both aspects usually run hand in hand but you can do one without the other if you think necessary.

The benefits of this process are that it establishes or confirms the principles of development, helps with the development of the scheme, identifies issues and enables design teams to bottom them out at an early stage. You might not be able to resolve all the issues raised but it means schemes can evolve quickly, a response can be made to issues raised by local residents,amenity groups and statutory consultees particularly ones that can’t be resolved, just addressed. This should mean that a scheme has been thoroughly assessed and designed to a high standard prior to its submission to a LPA for determination. Which theoretically means that your scheme should get a smoother ride through the planning application process.

This will also establish good working relationships with your local community. Once people know you and your scheme, you are no longer a faceless developer, but someone that has a vested interest in the area.

Ok this doesn’t mean you’ll be in for an easy ride and planning permission is guaranteed, because as we all know there are no guarantees, or even common sense, associated with the planning process. But this process will reduce the issues that you have to deal with during the application process and will limit the issues that need to be covered during the determination period. Theoretically (there’s that word again!) ensuring that applications are determined within their statutory determination period.

So Planning Ventures top tips for a successful pre app consultation process are:

  • Embrace the process and don’t be afraid of it – it needs to be done!

  • If in doubt about its need – play safe and engage.

  • Retain the services of a consultation facilitator, be it an independent one or a planning consultant. They will advise on the most appropriate consultation strategy, manage the pain of organising the process including event logistics, liaison with all interested parties including the design team and produce the all important Statement of Community Involvement.

  • Do your homework, ensure that the design team knows all about the area’s land uses, character and context and has identified all pertinent local issues particularly ones that will drive residents crazy.

  • Ensure that stakeholders feel they have a role to play, their views are valued and they can influence the process.

  • It’s not good practice to have designed the scheme before the first pre app process. It’s ok to have design principles and options, but don’t complete the scheme before hand – that’s a waste of everyone’s resources.

  • Be willing to engage outside of formal consultation exercises and respond to queries and questions raised, however insane these may seem.

  • Be willing to listen, amend and address issues where necessary and applicable.

  • Where aspects of the scheme cannot be changed explain why this can’t be done.

This can be a difficult, frustrating and at times seemingly pointless process but always remember it’s good to talk – with as many people as you possibly can! Oh yeah and always keep smiling – despite any pain you may feel!