Are Pre-Apps Pointless?

Councils have been promoting their pre-application services in recent years because they can now charge for them and they are a valued source of income (planning application fees are otherwise set nationally and only cover an estimated 50% of the cost of running a planning department).

Some councils, mostly in London, now charge eyewatering fees for a service that was formerly free. To be fair, when it was free applicants waited months for comments. Now that the process is commercialised, one can expect a slightly more responsive service.

At Just Planning, we generally dislike pre-applications and don’t usually recommend them for clients. A good agent will be familiar with the relevant policies and will have a general idea of how the application will be considered. That part of the pre-application response should not be particularly enlightening. All proposals, though, have some aspects that are finely balanced – they may not fully comply with adopted policies but can be justified. The rationale for seeking pre-application advice is that you obtain the informal opinion of a case officer in advance of an application, to avoid an unnecessary refusal.

The disadvantages are myriad, though. First, you have to pay, and the costs (in London at least) may exceed the cost of a planning application. Second, it takes time. 90% of minor planning applications are determined in 8 weeks. There is no statutory timeframe for pre-application advice. The last time we submitted a pre-application on a project, we waited 4 months for a response. By submitting a planning application instead, we would have saved half that time and a very large fee. When it came to deciding the subsequent planning application, the advice set out by the case officer in the pre-application response was overruled by a more senior officer, who took an entirely different position.

The final problem is this. A formal planning application forces a council to come to a final and formal decision. It must weigh up the planning merits, compromise where appropriate and decide whether to grant consent. If refusing the application, it must set out what aspects of the proposal were acceptable and narrow down their concerns to specific reasons for refusal.

In a pre-application response, the case officer has the opportunity to sit on the fence. There is no obligation to make a firm decision on a finely balanced issue. It is common to receive a response that sets out both sides but does not settle the question. The pre-app does not, in any case, bind the council in a future decision on a planning application.

The greatest disadvantage is that it gives the council an opportunity to set out a shopping list of requirements. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ application and the pre-application process can give the council the opportunity to comment negative on aspects of a proposal that might be considered, on balance, when weighed up as part of a planning application.

In situations where you have a considered and relatively uncomplicated proposal, entering into the pre-application process can open a can of worms. It is worth seeking pre-application advice, though, for larger schemes, for complicated proposals where you really need a steer from a case officer or where the application is sensitive and you would like a discussion with the case officer before it is made public through the formal application process.

Contact Just Planning for professional planning advice on your proposal and for specific advice on whether a pre-application submission makes sense for you.