With central Government policy turnabouts, cuts in LPA resources and endless delays in decision making, you might be forgiven for believing that the Planning system is currently only worth engaging with on the barest essential level i.e. through the formal application process. Pre-application enquiries (or pre-apps) certainly aren’t a priority today for many of the Council’s that we work with, yet to us they still hold a really valuable place in the system. In the case of major, contentious, policy conflicted or simply small tricky sites, an effective pre-app exercise can provide clarity and certainty for applicants and enable all parties to save time and resources in the long run – and never has the need for such been so urgent. 

We looked at pre-Apps in one of our 2018 blogs, and the fundamentals haven’t really changed – they can be based on the minimum of design work, but enable you to engage early with an LPA/stakeholders to establish the principles of development and the key issues likely to arise with any formal planning application. The critical point is effectiveness – how do you make the most of the pre-app process and secure clear, robust advice that will enable you to move forward with your proposals with certainty. 

So, if you’re unsure of how to get started or what an effective pre-app involves, here’s how we go about it: 

  • 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, such 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. And as a reminder, 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 on-line 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. Don’t be put off by Council’s discouraging the submission of pre-apps (for resource reasons) – these are a valid part of the planning system (the NPPF promotes ‘Good quality pre-application discussion’) and they are obliged to deal with them 
  • 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 (highlighting any useful precedents), 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 and 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 still no facility for submitting pre-apps via the planning portal, so send your enquiry directly to your LPA (electronic is pretty much standard now, although paper submissions may still be accepted). The same applies for the fee, and most LPA’s now have on-line 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). Many LPA’s now charge additional rates for specialist consultee comments, so indicate from the outset the level of response you require – if you just want to establish the principle of development, then you might only seek the Planners advice, but if there are potential deal-breaking transport, heritage or landscape issues involved, then it’s worth paying the extra to cover these up-front
  • Twin-track with specialist bodies: if you have a particularly sensitive or complex heritage site, you might want to seek additional specialist input. Historic England now offers free Initial pre-application advice to prospective applicants for planning permission affecting designated heritage assets (including EIA development and National Infrastructure Projects), undesignated heritage assets of archaeological interest (in Greater London), listed building consent, faculty consent and scheduled monument consent, or any project necessitating marine licence consent. They will review information provided (your LPA pre-app submission may well suffice for this stage), conduct one site visit/meeting (as necessary) and issue an advice letter. Depending on the outcome of this, they also offer an Extended Pre-application service, which is charged on a full cost recovery (not for-profit) basis and gives applicants access to design team meetings, advice on archaeological assessment, field evaluation and comments on emerging schemes from a named lead HE specialist. Check out more details of both services here
  • 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 obviously do programme for more – and be ready to both wait and chase. 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 any obvious site constraints. 
  • Remember it’s not binding: Be mindful that LPA’s aren’t beholden to their pre-application advice (and it may well be heavily caveated) in the same way as a planning consent, so there are no guarantees it will hold indefinitely (particularly if there is a long gap between the advice and any formal submission, during which policy and contextual circumstances can change). 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, or of course, heading back to the drawing board if your plans are well off the mark. Given potential delays it might not currently appear worth it, but we are still absolutely wedded to the usefulness of pre-apps and believe they are an invaluable tool at your disposal. Make your submission clear, focussed and well resourced, and we are convinced it will pay dividends. 

Give us a shout if you need help assembling your effective pre-app.