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.