Insights article

Working with the council: How to prepare for productive pre-app meetings

Sebastian Weise
Published: 11/05/2021

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Much careful work and planning go into designing a new development. Every planning application needs to go through the local council planning permission process. You want to resolve as many of the key sticking points that might hamper a planning application as early as possible. 

As a result, a large part of the design development needs to draw on local planning policies and the sentiment of local stakeholders towards the application. Most successful developers start dialogues with essential stakeholders, including the council and residents, as soon as practical. Having a detailed real-world insight and steer from local stakeholders early in the planning process can drastically reduce hold-ups later.

This is where the council's paid-for pre-application process comes in. It is one of the first point of call when trying to gauge the likely planning issues to be aware of. 

What pre-app services are offered by councils?

Local councils in the UK refer to ‘pre-app process’ to any activities, including advise, done or sought before making a planning application. The pre-app stage can involves paid-for advice, including also pre-app meetings, with a local planning officer. Paid-for pre-app advice services by councils sit alongside other activities, such as stakeholder and community engagement. 

Example: Nottingham City Council Pre-application service

With the introduction of design codes, an expanded pre-app process with the local authority that includes design reviews is an ideal mechanism to improve the quality of designs, particularly on challenging sites. For example, the Nottingham City Council’s Design Quality Framework and pre-app process is an exceptionally well-developed example. 

Applications that undertake pre-application consultation in Nottingham take ten weeks less on average to get planning approval compared to planning applications that don't make use of the service. They result in eleven fewer planning conditions than applications that don’t engage in the council's pre-application process.

A good pre-app service can resolve critical design decisions early and establish a working relationship with the local council. Benefits can include:

  • Saving costs and time by avoiding design choices that are unlikely to be approved
  • Avoiding applications that are unlikely to proceed to development
  • Reducing time for an approval decision when the application is submitted.
  • Determining what to provide with the final application for a smoother approval process
  • Early clarity around likely contribution payments. 

Consider the cost vs benefit of pre-application advice

When it comes to local authority advice, it's essential to consider the costs of the pre-app consultation service. These costs vary based on the project's size and the local authority that is receiving the application.

Public Practice, a social enterprise focused on building public sector capacity for proactive planning, recently reviewed pre-application services provided by London Borough Councils.

The review found significant variance in cost and service provision for pre-app advice across planning authorities. Average costs for projects of different sizes are listed below.

Pre-application process costs (Source: Public)

Overview of the average costs for an initial pre-application meeting with the local authority for projects of different sizes (Source: Public)

When considering pre-application advise services, it always pays to seek a second opinion on the quality of the service obtained so to judge whether it is worth to incur the additional fee. Alternatively, it is possible to create conversations with local councillors and residents first to start a conversation around key planning issues. 

What issues might arise in the pre-app stage? 

Time delay is a key stumbling block for pre-application services: The quality of the pre-application advice service different for every local authority. Local authority resources are substantially stretched, and often even internal departments cannot jump the queue for advice from planning officers. 

Public Practice also listed key issues that local authorities face when it comes to pre-app services.

  • Workloads: High caseloads and time pressures can hurt an officers’ capacity for scrutiny, negotiation, or innovation of new ways of working.
  • Churn: High staff turnover affects the consistency of advice and risks, reducing officer continuity benefits from pre-app through to application.
  • Transparency: A lack of transparency in the pre-app service due to confidentiality risks generates a lack of trust between stakeholders.
  • Skills: A perceived lack of specialist skills within some Authorities, such as design expertise or commercial awareness, can increase uncertainty or risk for applicants.
  • Standards: A lack of benchmarking across Authorities in terms of fees, resourcing or applicant feedback can result in variable service standards.

Generally, design teams should plan for delays in receiving official pre-application advice. Applying for pre-application advice will likely add at least two months to the project schedule, not considering any amendments based on advice received. This is outweighed by fewer issues at planning application stage. 

Making the most of pre-app services

Do a baseline investigation before approaching the council. Before you consider applying for your pre-app advice with the local authority, research the area around your site in your own time with available data, ideally also incorporating insights from local people and organisations. 

The pre-application process is unlikely to be beneficial without a baseline investigation of the site to get a feel for what is possible.

The government advises as follows: 

“The level of information necessary for effective pre-application engagement will vary depending on the scale and nature of the proposed development. [...] A prospective applicant would not necessarily be expected to provide all of the information that would accompany a formal planning application, but it needs to be sufficient information to allow the local planning authority to take an informed view.” 

Try to do the following to support your pre-application process with the local council. 

  • Get a planning consultant to review the development plans and local policies for your site.
  • Generate a place report, e.g. on PlaceChangers Site Insights, to understand provision of critical social infrastructure, such as schools, health services, open spaces; and issues experienced by residents.
  • Then consider the content of your proposal: do you propose to contribute economic value; what about social and environmental benefits to the immediate surroundings? What are the key impacts the proposal would have and on whom? 
  • Consider which other local bodies or stakeholders you can connect with at an early stage? Local design bodies for instance.  
  • Consider a phased approach to public engagement for large applications that also plans in time to take input from residents and other local stakeholders on your application.
  • When applying for pre-app advice, provide clear and concise summaries of your proposals based on the investigation you've completed and develop a few specific questions that need an official response.
  • Have a digital presentation of critical parameters of your plan that you can share beforehand. Digital parameter plans, for instance, can be annotated and help gather inputs from different departments faster than on paper. 
  • Log key design issues from pre-app meets with the local authority and forward those issues to the relevant member in the team for follow-up. 

How digital tools can help during the pre-app process

From a local authority perspective, the report by Public mentioned earlier also flagged the need for councils to develop a database for consistent record-keeping on processed pre-apps. There's also mention incorporating and developing capabilities to use 3D models and geo-tagged proposals. However, be prepared that councils may not necessarily have these resources in place to refer back to at a later stage. To support documentation and design workflow, you want to invest in your digital tools in house.

The PlaceChangers platform provides a suite of digital tools that aid the design team during the pre-app phase. This tool enables applicants to create simple parameter plans.

The place report from PlaceChangers Site Insight provide a detailed overview of the provision of social facilities and the local population's makeup, which helps consider travel and green space requirements. It provide an excellent starting point to generate real-world insights at the pre-app stage. 

With PlaceChangers interactive consultations you can invite feedback from the local planning authority, residents, and other stakeholders as part of a interactive consultation programme.

Explore the PlaceChangers planning toolkit

PC Engagement - market leading planning engagement

Set up powerful interactive consultations and integrate on your proposed site layouts. 

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PC Site Insights - Location insights tool

Make use of real-world location data and enrich your community engagement planning with insights on local people. 

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