Wednesday23 August 2017

Architects give up on 'unreliable' pre-app system

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Key plank of government policy is not fit for purpose, survey finds

The pre-application planning service offered by local authorities is so unreliable and expensive that some architects have stopped using it altogether, according to a new survey.

The government has said it wants to place greater reliance on the pre-app process and made it a key plank of the recent housing white paper.

Yet many architects say they would rather submit a full planning application and use that as the sounding board which the pre-app system is intended to be.

Many said the guidance they received was nothing more than a regurgitation of the council’s policies or was given by a junior officer whose advice was later over-ruled by a manager.

More than half of respondents to the survey by the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) said they had experienced cases where an entirely new issue which could, or did, lead to refusal had emerged after the pre-app process. And two-thirds said the advice given did not cover all relevant issues.

More than 85% said they were not happy with the system. Eighty percent said councils failed to provide their advice within the agreed timeframe – sometimes taking as much as a year. None had ever received a refund for a missed deadline despite it being a contractual arrangement.

Before endorsing the system further the government should examine how it is working and come up with some safeguards to ensure it does what it says on the tin

Brian Waters, president, ACA

Two-thirds said planning authorities no longer offer a free informal preliminary discussion with a duty planning officer.

Brian Waters, president of the ACA, said the pre-app process had gone “badly wrong” in some local planning authorities and was increasingly used as a way of generating income for under-funded departments.

He said: “Given the stretched resources of planning departments, burdened also by constant new demands and legislative changes, there is room for some sympathy. However, milking the pre-app process for disproportionate income, as is increasingly the case, should be prevented rather than encouraged.

“It gets worse. In authorities where the pre-app report or advice consists mainly of trotting out a précis of related policies, which a competent agent can do perfectly well for herself, it makes perfect sense for the applicant not to bother, knowing that on an appeal the authority will say to the inspector ‘we told them so’.

“Avoiding this kind of pre-application trap does not always solve the problem, however, because among the reasons for refusal there will often be the statement that the applicant had failed to seek out pre-application advice.”

He added: “Before endorsing the system further the government should examine how it is working and come up with some safeguards to ensure that it does what it says on the tin.”

Architects on pre-apps

Quotes from architects who responded to the ACA survey:

The pre-app system has potential to be a very useful planning tool but at present it is inconsistent, often disproportionate and often poorly administered.

Atrocious; the time to respond is often longer than the planning application itself, the advice is generic and in some cases more expensive than the FP application.

The worst was when a London borough charged £990 for 2 hours of a junior officer, whose advice was overruled post application by his team leader.

The reply could not have taken more than two hours to concoct. All pre-app advice is also caveated with the phrase that the views shown are the officer’s and therefore cannot be absolutely relied on. With one council in the south-east it was cheaper to submit a full application than to seek pre-app advice: and at least the response carries with it the credibility of the LA’s position.

This is a crazy system that needs urgent reform. Informal discussions with an officer must be made mandatory.

Although there are still some excellent and dedicated planning officers these are very much in the minority. The whole development control function is now dysfunctional. It needs to be privatised like Building Control was a few years ago with approved officers preparing reports to be submitted to individual chief planners/reg board committees for determination with the chief planners/committees closely monitored to ensure an even handling of applications.

We paid £2,000 for a single meeting in which we were told that what we wanted to build was not possible without adequate reasons and without any written feedback.

I discourage clients from the use of pre-apps as a formal application provides better value for money as well as getting a decision within a shorter space of time.

There is absolutely no respect for architects in the UK in the planning system. We see planning applications being determined with useless information and drawings by ‘technicians’ while we in the profession are refused validation for ridiculous reasons almost every time. The whole system needs to be taken apart.

Injecting competition with external consultants will vastly improve the LPA performances as happened with LA Building Control departments who are now generally better than private ones.

Before pre-app fees became widely demanded, the senior planning officers of one northern authority commented that they considered engaging with would-be applicants before a submission was essential and saved the authority substantial costs in wasted time. Charging for pre-app creates a two-stage system that effectively doubles the effort before a planning decision is reached. The whole process is now so formalised that to assess the planning position for a scheme a considerable mass of work has to be carried out, whereas a ‘quick chat’ with the planners to establish the primary position is no longer allowed.



Readers' comments (12)

  • Oh what a surprise. How come this is news? I haven't used the pre-application process for several years and would advise any client against it. The whole planning process is a complete joke I know for a fact there are only a couple of planners left in some planning departments like Ryedale and Selby and they are struggling with hundreds of planning applications. How can they possible have any time for pre-apps when they can't even deal with the full applications?

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  • Indeed , the level of staffing ( for frontline and direct contact)in a planning department nowadays is similar to the banking sector , i.e. 12 year olds in suits reading from a script or ticking a box. Experienced staff cost and the only way if there is an intern/junior system is to make sure mentoring is almost one-to-one. In the days of golf course lunches and a site visit to a decent restaurant with the planning officer are all but gone but what replaced this was , in my opinion , even worse! Also some corresponding dialogue and activity between 'official' planning departments and the multitude of strategy makers and blue-sky thinkers who are out-there wouldn't be a bad idea.

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  • Pat Bellay

    Why such surprise over yet another 'new' example of the joke that has been 'planning control' for as long as I've been in private practice..50 YEARS [40 years on my own a/c]!! Have been fighting it all that time, mostly alone because most won't put their heads above the parapet, so the system bumbles on. There has been only ONE decent government edict on planning in all those years that was Heseltines PPG22/80 that essentially said that members + officers should not pass on their own likes/dislikes + prejudices as 'policy'!! This stopped the zombies in their tracks....for five minutes, they've taken all that back plus some, including getting rid of the little bit of democracy that crept in by making it possible to speak for a massive 3 minutes at committee...now well over 90% of applications never get to committee. So the 'planning clones' march on, 'clones' because they are taught + are preaching the same blind one dimensional crap they have been preaching on design since planning control came into being!
    So why don't WE do something about it??????? I've tried ministers, mp's etc etc + the BD > result 'zero'??
    End of yet another waste of time 'planning' rant!

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  • Will the RIBA step up to the plate on this one I wonder or keep below the bureaucratic parapet and mutter something like 'it's in the RICS court'?

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  • LPA's use the pre-app process as a cash cow, nothing more.

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  • The pre-app process works better when linked to design review panels which in my experience give good constructive advice - and of course you need planning committees who listen to the advice of the panel.

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  • Utterly hopeless waste of time for many of the Councils in this area. A minimum of 6 to 8 weeks to receive a short letter saying that outcomes may be inconclusive until a full application is submitted to enable full and complete consideration of all criteria relating to the context of the site, and receipt of all information required for validation which may affect considerations made by the planning officers. Money for valueless old rope!

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  • I recall working for an Architect in Ireland 10 years ago (tail end of the boom) where his advice was always to submit a planning application, as at least then you could rely (somewhat) on the outcome, and had a decision you could work with.

    Anything else, for all its potential value, was useless.

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  • It is hard to be anything other than negative about the dead hand of the planning system. Whilst I appreciate that it formulates policies for development, the words "in keeping" and "inappropriate" and other such pejorative and subjective terms abound. It has done nothing towards the quality of design as against build quality in the UK. Just look at the low design ambition of so many housing developers. The pre-app process gives nothing, does nothing, is responsible for nothing and means nothing, for which it charges disproportionately highly.
    What would save an inordinate amount of time and money would be a simple meeting with a knowledgeable senior planning officer who could say from that meeting whether or not a scheme is a possibility, and throughout the planning application stage, be prepared to make comments and accept amendments and debate. It used to be like that, but it seems that staff shortage and money shortage are the tools of the accountant used to cripple the industry, as an unintended consequence of their meddling and control freakery.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    If planners would plan, and stop having opinions about architecture, that would be a step forward.

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