Insights article

How to prepare for productive pre-app meetings

Sebastian Weise
Published: 11/05/2021

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A lot of careful work and planning goes into the design of a new development. Many issues need to be considered to adapt and shape the proposals to fit with the local area.

Issues can range from the principle of the proposed development in terms of local planning policies, all the way to more detailed issues, such as the highways requirements, environmental concerns, and many more. 

There is a lot of work to do even before the application for a building design permit can occur. A large part of the effort and costs for the design process involves analysis and understanding of results from site investigations and survey work. Having a detailed picture of the local area and the site itself early on in the planning process, can be a source of advantage both in terms of avoiding reworking of plans to fit conditions that were not know at the start. 

At PlaceChangers, we help design teams at early stage planning with better site insights and interactive stakeholder engagement. Our experiences with many projects undertaken and completed through the PlaceChangers platform, we know that a key part of the early design phases also relies on a productive working relationship with the local planning authority. 

This is where the pre-application process comes in. 


What is the pre-app process?

The ‘pre-app process’ happens before the submission of a planning application. It typically involves paid-for advice and pre-app meetings with the local planning department on a proposed development. Pre-app meetings usually sit alongside other enquiries and design activities, such as stakeholder and community engagement. 

The pre-app meetings process is a two way dialogue about the project proposals. Good pre-app meetings can resolve key design decisions early and establish a working relationship with the local council. 

There are benefits in terms of:

  • 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. 

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 a particularly well developed example. 

Applications which undertake a pre-application consultation in Nottingham take ten weeks less on average to get to planning approval. They result in eleven fewer planning conditions on average than applications that don’t engage in the pre-application process.


What are the cost implications?

When it comes to local authority advise, it's important to consider the costs associated with a pre-app consultation service. These costs vary based on the size of the project, and also 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 a significant variance in terms of 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 average costs for initial pre-application meeting with the local authority for projects of different sizes (Source: Public)


What issues might arise in the pre-app stage? 

When it comes to the pre-app meetings process, it is important to keep in mind that there are often long timelines for receiving advice. Along with the costs, the pre-application advise service is different for every local authority. It's always important to consider the understand the service conditions that are provided for the fee paid.  

Local authority resources are substantially stretched, and often even internal departments cannot jump the queue for advice from planning officers. 

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

  • Workloads: High caseloads and time pressures can have a negative impact on officers’ capacity for scrutiny, negotiation, or innovation of new ways of working.
  • Churn: High staff turnover affects consistency of advice and risks reducing the benefits of officer continuity from pre-app through to application.
  • Transparency: A lack of transparency in the pre-app service, due to confidentiality, risks generating 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 standards of service.

Generally, design teams should plan for delays in receiving official pre-application advice. It is likely that applying for such advice will add at least two months to the project schedule not considering any amendments made based on advice received. 

Before you do consider applying for your pre-app advice with the local authority, consider all other options to research the area around your site in your own time with available data, ideally also incorporating insights from local people and organisations. 


Tips on how to make the most of pre-app meetings

At the beginning of the process, the design team may not have detailed project information for their proposals. However, without a baseline investigation of the site to get a feel for it and what is possible, the pre-application process is unlikely to be beneficial. 

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.” https://www.gov.uk/guidance/before-submitting-an-application 

Try to do the following to support your pre-application process with the local council. A planning consultant on your team can help provide the necessary advice if you do not have capacity in house.   

  • Consult the development plans and local policies for your site.
  • Use a digital tool to map out key resources in the locality and what kind of proposals could work well.
  • Then consider the content of your proposal and promote the benefits: 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 bodies or local stakeholders you can already contact at an early stage? Local design bodies for instance.  
  • For large applications, consider a phased approach to public engagement 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 already completed and develop a few specific questions that need an official response.
  • Have a digital presentation of key 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. 
  • Have a system in place to 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 of 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. In order to support documentation and design work flow,  you want to invest in your own digital tools in house. 

The PlaceChangers platform provides a suite of digital tools that aid the design team during the pre-app phase. For instance, this tool enables applicants to create simple parameter plans with which you can invite feedback from the local planning authority, local residents, and other stakeholders as part early engagement on your planning proposal. New site analytics tool provide a detailed overview of the provision of social facilities and the make up of the local population which helps to consider travel and green space requirements. The reports from this tool can provide an excellent foundation for the pre-app proposal, saving time and costs at this stage of the project.  

 

Do you like to find out more about the new Site Insights tool and parameter planner on the PlaceChangers platform?


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