Local planning authorities have a statutory power to charge applicants for giving pre-application planning advice, whether that advice is given in a meeting or in writing.
But is it worth it given fees can reach several thousand pounds depending on the scale and nature of the proposed development?
Many will say that the system is applied inconsistently across the country: some authorities provide more constructive advice than others. Nowhere is there any guarantee that a smooth ride through the pre-app system will result in a similar passage through the formal application process. The pre-app process will only give an indication of the view of whichever officer dealt with it on the day, although it should later be taken into account as a material consideration.
To make the most of the process, a lot of work usually needs to be done by the applicant's professional team to prepare for the pre-app stage. That helps applicants to really tackle particular issues with the authority and hopefully gain the confidence to progress.
In situations where the authority's validity requirements are unclear, or where there is a specific concern over how a local policy is likely to be applied there can be real benefits in obtaining some early advice. Where time constraints allow, this can front-load the process meaning that an application is more likely to be validated swiftly once it is submitted.
Where there is a high chance of refusal, potential applicants can re-assess their proposals before committing fully to the process. For larger applications, issues such as community and stakeholder engagement and the benefits of planning performance agreements can be discussed with a view to getting into the best possible shape once the application is on the go.
Certainly there will be cases where a tweak made after a pre-app meeting could mean the difference between refusal and consent. A failure to tick one box might otherwise have meant a significant delay in getting an application validated, or worse still a last minute refusal generating a need to start again. In those cases, the initial cost of the pre-app process could easily save both time and money down the line.
On the other hand, such is the take-up of this offer that potential applicants have to wait several weeks for their pre-app meetings with some authorities, which could risk them falling foul of contractual obligations for the submission of planning applications by given dates. Perhaps there is a cautionary tale to take care over the drafting of such obligations, now that the pre-app stage is increasingly used.
As ever, the process is a good one when it works. Even being able to recover the cost of the service, some authorities are under significant staffing constraints making it hard for them to respond as they might wish.
Applicants should be cautious about relying on pre-app advice if there is a lengthy delay between that and submission of their planning application. In that time, local policies or central guidance and priorities may have changed, or other nearby developments come forward which change the way in which the applicant's proposals will be viewed.
Applicants should also be aware that pre-app information could be made available under a Freedom of Information request. Further, with a view to greater transparency, some authorities will publish the pre-app information online along with all other material once a formal application is submitted.