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Pre-application guidance and engagement
A fundamental premise of development management is that all of the participants should be prepared to invest effort in discussions and provision of information prior to the submission of a planning application. Spending time on exchanging information during the critical period in which a development proposal is still fluid and capable of adaptation indicates collaborative way of working to solve problems, enhance sustainability and quality and better ensure financial viability. As such, it is at the very heart of a positive and proactive planning system.
- The Government view
- Aspects of an effective pre-application offer
- Procedures for effective pre-application engagement
- Who should be involved in pre-application discussions?
- Other forms of front loading
- Setting the agenda for a site
- Front loading smaller proposals
- Resources for pre-application guidance and engagement
There are tangible benefits from well managed engagement prior to the submission of a planning application. These include:
- improved quality of the proposed development
- opportunities for better co-ordination of investment in an area created
- improved efficiency for all users by reducing wasted time and money spent on abortive work or going over old ground
- avoidance of incomplete/invalid applications
- consensus on planning conditions and s106 obligations that could otherwise delay implementation
- identification of who should be involved from the early stages and opportunities created for them to be heard in an effective way
- additional clarity and certainty for both applicants and the community.
The Government view
The Government’s draft development management policy note sees pre-application discussion as an element of an effective development management approach. More detailed policies on the scope and conduct of pre-application discussions are included in the draft pre-application engagement annex. The Government is not proposing to make pre-application discussions compulsory. However, because the opportunity for pre-application engagement is part of a good planning service, it is likely to feature in future reviews of performance measures for planning.
One of the most important principles established by the policy is that the local planning authority is made responsible for creating opportunities for pre-application discussions. They should:
- instigate discussions
- invite participants
- record discussions.
Aspects of an effective pre-application offer
A guiding principle to front loading development should be that the processes are appropriate to the scale and complexity of the development proposal. They should also reflect the sensitivity, constraints and spatial policies relating to the development site and wider area.
Using this principle, a local planning authority create front loading processes that are helpful and direct for current and future applicants and other interested parties and commensurate with the resources that it has available for its development management service.
Scope of pre-application discussions
It will be up to each local planning authority to define the scope of its pre-application discussion process. This will differ from authority to authority based on the resources that are available and the pressures for development that need to be accommodated by the service. Many authorities prioritise discussions on major development proposals. There is a range of practice in regard to providing advice in regard to minor and householder guidance.
The arrangements for pre-application engagement with developers should include ways to achieve the following outcomes:
- “show stoppers” indentified early
- relevant spatial planning policies identified
- emerging development proposals are related to the community’s vision and other strategies highlighted for further consideration
- detailed site specific criteria (masterplans and development briefs) developed where appropriate,
- opportunities identified for coordinating public and private investment in order to make the most of new development proposals
- planning proposal guided and shaped so that the development has the best chance of delivering the outcomes required for the area
- impacts of the proposed development investigated to ensure that any adverse effects are either removed or mitigation measures put in place.
- all aspects of the proposed development clarified including the conditions that might be required and S106 provisions and consensus reached where possible.
- comments, concerns and suggestions of local communities and stakeholders taken on board before the scheme is fully worked up and attitudes entrenched.
Procedures for effective pre-application engagement
Whatever procedures are adopted by a local planning authority for their area, it is important for the credibility and value of the process that it is able to demonstrate that:
- procedures are proportionate to the scale and complexity of the proposals
- advice given is reliable
- process is time conscious and project managed
- continuity of officers involved is ensured where possible
- procedures for engagement are inclusive and seek to include elected members on major proposals
- the whole process is clear for all participants to understand
- decision making has a high degree of probity and transparency.
'Constructive Talk' - This multi-agency publication includes more detailed information about the pre-application phase, including the methods and mechanisms which may be employed and the resources to support an effective pre-application engagement.
'Open for Business’ - This PAS case study discusses experiences of local authorities who have made arrangements that encourage developers to discuss their development proposals prior to the submission of planning applications.
Planning performance agreements
The government policy encourages local authorities to use planning performance agreements (PPAs) as a project management tool for pre-application engagement. Councils use PPAs to meet the challenges of handling large, complex development proposals. They have been used to deliver high quality outcomes at various stages in the planning process from pre-application to discharge of conditions. They are based on collaborative processes and provide greater certainty and transparency to planning application assessment and decision making. The principles of project management used in a PPA can also be usefully applied, on a reduced scale, to consider developments which are less complex.
Bracknell Forest: front-loading through planning performance agreements
PPA guidance and inception service – on the ATLAS planning website
British Property Federation (BPF) PPA guidance - on the BPF website
Who should be involved in pre-application discussions?
The developer is crucial to a successful pre-application phase. Their involvement is not obligatory, but a well run and effective process for engagement will strongly encourage participation.
In the event that a developer proves unwilling to commit to participation in pre-application discussions, there are options available to the local planning authority. It may be useful to have these identified in the pre-application offer.
For example, the council might facilitate a discussion with the community and other stakeholders in order to explore options in an open and constructive manner even in the absence of a visible input from the developer.
Local authorities may also use formal mediation as a useful means of brokering resolution of any disputes as part of their pre-application arrangements. Such approaches would be in keeping with the concept of a less adversarial planning system and exemplifies a development management approach to balancing possible conflicts.
Lastly, local authorities that encourage pre-application discussions may also want to make it clear that if a planning application is submitted without using this opportunity it will be determined in the form submitted as post submission negotiations with planning officers will not be available. The draft policy on pre-application acknowledges the reasonableness of this response, as a means of managing resources.
Engagement of the community will be a key factor in effective pre-application discussions. Local authorities should ensure that their offer on pre-application discussions is consistent with the provisions of the statement of community involvement. The council should adopt a range of procedures that encourage (as far as possible) participation from groups that represent the interests of future as well as existing communities.
It is important that the mechanisms adopted for engaging the community are designed to:
- help people in the communities in the locality to understand proposals; both the impacts and the potential benefits. This may involve councils having to translate plans and technical reports into plain English or pictorial forms that can be readily understood by people who are not technically minded,
- provide an opportunity for questions and concerns about a proposed development to be answered,
- give a chance for the community to input their ideas for improvement as well as their concerns and objections.
The process for involvement needs also to explain clearly the scope that the community have for comment; for example where a site has already been allocated through the LDF process, it is well to explain that the principle of the use for this purpose has been established and is not up for challenge through the planning applications process. Other factors that are important principles relate to timeliness and giving an appropriate opportunity for responses and also feedback of issues discussed to be made readily available, for example by posting minutes of meetings on the council’s website.
'Getting Engaged' - This PAS case study provides a range of examples of the way in which local authorities have gone beyond the statutory minimum to provide a better opportunity for local communities to be engaged in developments proposed for their area.
Local authority members are encouraged to fulfill their roles as local authority representatives and civic leaders in the planning system through the pre-application phase of development management. The participation of elected members should be guided by the National Code of Conduct for members and any local code of conduct within the authority. Specific advice in relation to planning is set out by the Standards Board for England and by the Local Government Association. Elected members’ involvement should be channeled through the council’s procedures and not undertaken on an ad hoc basis which could be open to misconstruction.
Standards Board for England Code of Conduct - on the Standards Board for England website
Probity in planning: the role of councillors and officers - on the LGA website
Statutory consultee organisations
The effectiveness of pre-application discussions is enhanced by the engagement of statutory consultee organisations in the process. The Government’s consultation on 'Improving engagement with statutory and non statutory consultees' sets up a greater expectation that statutory consultee organisations will play an active role and contribute to pre-application discussions.
The consultation policy proposes a new system to encourage these organisations to give clearer indications as to whether any concerns are “show stoppers” or if they are capable of mitigation. The organisations will be expected to share the development management problem solving approach by explaining concerns in more detail and suggesting solutions wherever possible.
Importantly, the consultation paper also proposes a code of practice. Each local planning authority and statutory consultee organisations will be encouraged to sign up to this code. Its provisions will require both parties to commit resources and review their procedures in order to comply with the code. One of the provisions explicit in the code is a commitment to participation in pre-application discussions.
'Improving engagement with statutory and non statutory consultees' - on the CLG website
Local delivery partners
Local partners in the area will have an important place in many pre-application discussions, especially where the proposal relates specifically to a development facilitating the delivery of services to the local community.
To ensure effective pre-application engagement, these organisations could be expected to act in a similar way to statutory consultees and be prepared to invest adequate resources to discussions. Clearly the local authority will have an important role in encouraging the participation of these agencies as part of the place making for their area. Active engagement between planning authorities and a broad group of local partner organizations will encourage opportunities for co-ordination of public and private investment. It will also provide the local planning authority with access to some of the skills and knowledge with which to assess the potential impacts and benefits of a development. The Local Strategic Partnership is a key gateway to encouraging a good dialogue between planning and local partners. For many planners the first port of call for this will be a conversation with the LSP coordinator for the area.
Other forms of front loading
While pre-application discussions are an important part of the front loading of development proposals, these are not the only activities that should be considered.
In many cases however it will be necessary for an earlier set of activities to establish an understanding of the vision for the future development of a site or area and to scope both the possibilities and the process.
These processes are of particular importance for when:
- the core strategy (and or area action plan or supplementary planning document) has not yet been formulated
- a development site that was not anticipated in the local development framework process now has come forward.
Setting the agenda for a site
This stage in the development management process is most applicable to developments which are very significant to the area.
The draft PPS advises that, where principles have been established through the plan making process, these should not be revisited unnecessarily when the site is considered in the light of a development proposal. Thus, for allocated sites the vision objectives and policy of the current development plan should be clear to follow. But, even in these circumstances, it’s also important that there is an opportunity for checking any change in circumstances that might materially impact on that vision etc.
There is a strong cross over between plan making and the front loading process for the delivering key sites. The latter may include either strategic sites identified in the core strategy or significant sites allocated in other development plan documents. It’s important that at the earliest stages of consideration, the authority develops a viewpoint on the policy context and a shared vision for the future development. This will include an understanding of its constraints, and how it might be developed in order to contribute to the improvement of the area and to satisfy the priority needs of the community.
Agenda setting in this context should consider:
- national policies
- existing development plan policies (regional and local)
- sustainable community strategy
- local transport plan and other relevant strategies
- other important local and regional strategies and agreements
- site specific constraints including topography, heritage, ecology, infrastructure etc.
How this is lead and managed will vary according to the needs, resources and governance of the local authority. Their success will be helped by applying the skills, knowledge and evidence collected through both plan making and development management to this process.
Other tools which may be appropriate vehicles for establishing the future for the site and its surroundings include:
- area action plans
- development briefs.
Which approach is most appropriate will vary according to:
- corporate priorities
- dependency on infrastructure delivery
- the sensitivity and complexity of both site and proposals
- requirements such as environmental impact assessments
- consents required under other legislation.
When dealing with key sites, it will also be of critical importance to establish a project management plan and a communication plan that sets out how timeframes will be clarified and stakeholders engaged. Planning performance agreements (PPAs), discussed earlier as part of a pre-applications offer, are a very strong tool to guide this stage of consideration.
Front loading smaller proposals
Smaller development such as house extensions, changes of use or minor works to commercial building (that are not permitted development) need a different approach to pre-application engagement.
Local planning authorities should adopt a strong customer focus to guide their procedures and ensure that future applicants get through the planning system with least expense and effort while still guaranteeing an acceptable quality of development.
Readily accessible, good quality and written advice guides and supplementary planning guidance about what forms of development are likely to be acceptable will allow most applicants to develop their proposals without the need to visit the council for face to face discussions. This kind of advice gives certainty and reduced costs to applicants and also those affected by a proposed development.
Local authorities need to provide an inclusive service to all members of the community. They should therefore ensure that provisions are also made for those members of the community who are less able to make use of written guidance.
To cover these circumstances many LPAs also have arrangements for applicants to have access to a planning officer or a suitably trained customer service officer who can provide advice or information face to face or via telephone.
'Getting It Right First Time' provides examples of local authority solutions to the problem of providing a good quality advice in regard to the provision of general advice on the submission of planning applications.
Resources for pre-application guidance and engagement
In the current climate of pressure on local authority finances, the issue of resourcing front loading is of particular concern. The option of modifying the fees for planning applications to take account of the resources consumed in advance of the submission of a planning application has been considered. However, in the consultation draft policy for pre-application engagement, the Government has not taken forward this option.
The consultation draft draws local planning authorities’ attention to Section 93 of the Local Government Act 2003, the provisions of which allow a fee to be charged for their pre-application service subject to:
- any charge being on a not for profit basis (year by year), taking one year with another, and
- the income from charges not exceeding the cost of providing them.
- the schedule of charges and associated level of service purchased being set out clearly.
The consultation document seeks consultation responses to a question asking whether fees charged under the existing powers cover the extra resources needed to provide pre-application engagement or are warranted by post submission savings or whether there should be specific arrangements in the planning legislation.
While many local authorities do levy a charge for pre-application advice and find that this has been of great assistance in allowing them to devote more resources to this important function, this is still far from universal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some authorities have held off from imposing specific pre-application fees as they feel that this would dissuade applicants from seeking advice. Others have reported that while the quality of application submissions has improved for those who have sought paid for advice, the savings have been more than taken up by the poorer quality of submissions by those put off from taking advice by the cost.
Chorley: tackling consultees pre-application resource difficulties
Westminster: charging for pre-application discussions
'Material World' - This PAS case study discusses the experiences of local authorities who have considered imposing charges and examines the range of options taken.
- Development briefs in Wycombe: supporting development opportunities
- Swindon: Using development briefs to settle the vision before pre-application discussions
- Bracknell Forest: front-loading through planning performance agreements
- Chorley: tackling consultees pre-application resource difficulties
- Waverley: public planning forums