Pre-Application Advice: Is It Actually Worth It?

Knock down and rebuild project that sought pre-application advice
(Image credit: PAD Studio)

Most local planning authorities offer informal pre-application advice (usually for a fee) prior to submitting your planning application. Asking your local planning department for advice about what you will be allowed to build seems pretty obvious — after all, they are public servants, and there to help. 

(MORE: Secrets to Planning Success)

What is Pre-Application Advice?

The government urges applicants and local councils to embrace early engagement with each other before formal submissions are made as a way of streamlining the system and helping to deliver the right sort of development. So this should be a very short article.

The answer is simple — decide what you want to do and ask the planning department for advice. Do exactly as they say, submit your proposal and get planning permission. Easy.

The problem is that nothing is quite as simple as it should be. Local planning departments do usually offer an advice service that will in theory enable you to seek guidance before making an application. Some will charge a fee (usually several hundred pounds for a single plot proposal) and they may guarantee to respond within a set timescale. Some local authorities will have a duty planning officer who is available to talk to members of the public on a first-come, first-served basis.

Some form of pre-application advice will be available to you in relation to your extension or self build proposal — but is it actually worth having, or might it create more problems than it avoids?

(MORE: How to Get Planning Approval)

The Problem with Pre-Application Advice

 In my experience, there are several critical problems with pre-application advice: 

  • It can take a long time to get a response — sometimes even longer than a planning application (eight weeks)
  • The time that is devoted to assessing your proposal can vary dramatically between different authorities and you cannot assume a thorough and careful examination of what you intend to do. 
  • On the scale of a local authority’s priorities, giving you advice is much lower down than actually dealing with a planning application. The resources they devote to it in terms of internal consultations and team discussions will almost certainly be less than if you made an application. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, you cannot depend on the advice given and it is quite likely that the planning officer who gave the advice will not deal with the planning application. It is all given to you on a ‘without prejudice’ basis and the local authority is not duty bound to follow this advice when dealing with your subsequent application. I have encountered pre-application advice that is either simply ignored, or worse, disagreed with by the subsequent case officer. I have had pre-application advice that has been dished out by junior planning officers, and it was not agreed by senior officials and is therefore worthless. 

Who Gives the Pre-Application Advice?

Some planning officers are excellent, positive, constructive and to be relied upon. They are a pleasure to deal with. But whether you get such a planning officer is down to luck. 

Part of the problem is that the culture of local authorities is risk averse. No planning officer ever got into trouble for saying no. This can create a rather cautious and essentially negative attitude among the planning officers who are giving initial advice.

 It is also quite easy for them to give negative advice when the person receiving it cannot appeal against it or challenge it in the same way that one can challenge planning refusal. It is also a simple fact that pre-application advice is often given by junior planning officers with limited experience, who are of course even more worried than most about getting into trouble by being too encouraging or positive.

Can I Do Research Myself?

What you can do is undertake your own research. What’s more, your designer or architect may also have previous experience with the local authority and may have knowledge to disseminate. 

Planning decisions are made based upon the local authority’s Development Plan, and supplementary planning documents such as Residential Design Guides. It is therefore possible to research your local authority’s policies that will apply to your development. 

Local authorities very often have quite prescriptive residential design criteria for extensions; they may prefer certain types of design and materials, they may have minimum garden size standards, fixed parking standards, etc. All this can provide some valuable background guidance. 

The only problem is that planning documents are riddled with jargon and are not usually designed to be read by ‘non planners’.

A Positive Pre-App Process

Knock down and rebuild project that sought pre-application advice

(Image credit: PAD Studio)
Top Tip

“Insist on written feedback from the planning officer you meet with at the pre-app stage. They’ll note their feedback is ‘without prejudice’ but if you include it in your Design & Access Statement as an appendix it shows you’ve been open with the planning office from the start.”

“Pre-app is all about reducing risk,” says architect Darren Bray from PAD Studio. And that’s why when their client, self-builder Sarah Stuart, made the big decision to demolish her house to build a new home on site, in East Sussex – a highly conserved area – he encouraged her to go down the pre-app process. 

“If you’re not up to date with the local planning office or policies and you go straight to submitting a formal application it can throw up all sorts of things that a pre-app could have ironed out,” explains Darren. “Involving planning officers from the outset makes them feel part of the process and can be very positive.”

As part of the pre-app process on this project, Darren insisted they all met with a local planning officer. He went prepared with a thorough scheme that included a 3D model on the computer and detailed drawings. 

How to Take Advantage of Pre-Application Advice

So, despite my health warnings you may still feel the need to talk to the local authority planners about the prospects of success for your scheme. In doing this, you have the option of exploring the potential of a possible extension or building plot either in terms of the principle or in detail. 

For example, is an infill plot likely to be possible? Or in terms of specific details will you be able to put windows in an elevation overlooking a neighbour? The level of detail in terms of drawings will of course vary dramatically depending on what it is you want to discuss. 

The Principle

To talk just about the principle of a new dwelling on a site you may need no more than an ordnance survey plan or an extract from Google Earth to discuss the general issues. This can be worth doing, provided you bear in mind and understand the policies they’re working to.

Perhaps the least risky way of taking advantage of pre-application advice services is not to give too much away in relation to what you’re actually proposing. If you’re trying to establish whether a new dwelling in a particular location might get planning permission then talk in general terms and have indicative plans. Try and tease out of the planning officer the key issues that they think are most relevant. You can therefore extract information from them without evoking their defensive response about the specifics of your scheme.

The Details

Equally, when it comes to the details of a proposal like building an extension, you may need to know what their rules of thumb are in terms of acceptable window-to-window distances, how they measure overshadowing and what approach they take to parking provision. 

All of these questions can be asked without necessarily exposing your particular scheme to their critical eye at the beginning of the process. So it may make sense to take advantage of some pre-application advice, but be aware that once a planning officer has raised concerns and has been negative about a particular scheme on a site, especially if they put it in writing, it is difficult for them to row back from that and be positive about something they said they weren’t happy with. 

I’ve known of schemes that have been blighted from the outset because of negative planning officer comments, based on a very quick and partial judgement that has been written down.

It's All About Priorities

My goal is not to make local authorities sound like the enemy, but it’s important to be aware that you do not share the same priorities. 

From the planning officer’s point of view, your personal desire for a bigger house is completely and utterly irrelevant. They have a duty to control development in the public interest, so their starting point is usually to ask themselves whether a scheme should be refused.

So if you still feel the urge to utilise pre-application advice, my stance is that it is likely to be more negative than the approach you would get if your scheme was presented as an application. For all these reasons I tend to take the view that the best form of pre-application advice is the first planning application. 

Do bear in mind that if you make an application, you can withdraw it if they don’t like it and avoid the blight of a refusal. You also get a free go if you apply for broadly the same proposal within a year. 

You can use an initial application as a mechanism for exposing the key issues and to gain an understanding as to what you’re likely to be able to build. It will be dealt with thoroughly, properly and seriously, and importantly if they refuse it, you have the option to appeal.

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