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How to negotiate with a planning officer

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It can be frustrating work negotiating with planning officers. But here are some tips that could make all the difference in developing a relationship with the planning department to get that all important planning permission.

Review previous decisions

The first step to finding out whether a Council and their officers are willing to negotiate with you during an application is to research past applications on their website. But how do you do that?

Look for recent decisions made (only ones that were approved) and see if any ‘superseded’ drawings have been submitted. Usually it will say so in the file name. That will give you a rough idea as to whether the officer has asked for amendments to the application and has accepted them.

However, do not assume that because there are no superseded drawings on file that the officer isn’t prepared to negotiate. Sometimes a proposal can just be unacceptable and it would be a waste of everyone’s time to negotiate. It is usually only the cases where they are acceptable in principle when alterations can be accepted. So try to take a good sample size of, say, the past two weeks of decisions to give you a good idea of the Council’s practises.

However, as I am sure most of you are aware, not all officers and Councils are that helpful leaving the applicant very frustrated with a refusal when only small amendments would be necessary. If you get the impression that this is the case in your local authority then you may be best placed to seek pre-application advice rather than submitting a planning application straight away. Be prepared for the additional time this will add to your programme though if you are considering this route.
However, even though the pre-application process will add time, it will be a lot less in the long run if you have to appeal a decision which can take a lot longer.

Submit a professional application

Whether a planning officer is prepared to negotiate can depend on a number of things, a lot of those are out of your control. But what is within your control is the quality of the planning application you submit.

Depending on the scale of your proposal, you could have only drawings to submit or you may have to submit a number of supporting statements with your application. Either way they should look as professional as possible to give the officer and the Council some comfort that you have put the effort in on your scheme. Being honest, a lot of people skip this part and submit quite poor supporting statements just to tick a box. I can assure you this gets picked up one way or another and it can be the difference between a permission or refusal.
If you are submitting drawings, make sure they are clearly legible so that even someone who has never seen a planning application before can understand them. If you submit drawings that are not easy to understand then your whole application runs the risk of being invalid which starts you off on the wrong foot from the outset with the Council.

For your supporting statements, make sure that all of them are sending the same message. You do not want any contradictory information across them. Whilst the officer may not read all of them in detail, each of them will be read in detail by officers from other departments. So make sure, at least, that they all refer to the same details of the proposal (no. of storeys, no. of units, address, etc.).

Initial contact with the officer

Once your application is valid and you manage to get to speak to the officer either on the phone or on site, ask them whether they would be willing to accept amendments to the scheme, if it would help get approval. This will be for both your benefit and the officer’s.

Most developers kick back on the officer when amendments are asked for so, generally speaking, it will be welcome to them that you are even asking the question. This will help you build a relationship with the officer which can be invaluable and may even bring your case to the top of their list to help you out!

Keep in touch…

Once your application is valid and has been open to the public for a number of weeks, you may start receiving objections. Do not rely on the officer to let you know that you have received any. Instead check the website once a week and try and give the officer a call to see if any have come in. Objections should be logged on the website but sometimes the admin teams are very busy and it could just be waiting to be logged. Both checking the website and calling the officer should cover all your bases.

And once the statutory 21 days has passed, review all of the objections and assess for yourself whether a response is required. If genuine concerns are raised, then you can submit a response to the officer to explain how the scheme has overcome the concerns of the public. The officer has to respond to these themselves when they write their report anyway so helping the officer here can make a difference. But be reasonable and respond to the planning issues. Do not just dismiss the objections as irrelevant if they touch on planning issues.

You’ve probably noticed a theme throughout that helping the officer out can make such a difference to your application. It can help your relationship with an officer and could drastically improve the timescales of your application and chances of success.

How to object to (or support!) a planning application

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As a planning officer I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of objections to planning applications. But unfortunately a large proportion of those were irrelevant because they focussed on topics outside of planning.

This brief article should put you in the right direction to make sure your objection is having the full effect when sent to the planning officer.

Grounds that irrelevant

House values. The most common issue that people object on, but just isn’t relevant to planning, is house values.

A lot of people write in saying “this application will destroy my house values! Now my property will be a bad investment.” Whilst I completely understand this position, try instead to focus on the reasons why it would impact the value.

Is the development going to be so large that it overshadows your house and reduce your access to daylight?

Is the development going to suddenly create an issue of overlooking where there wasn’t one before?

Is a restaurant or bar proposed next door that will create a lot of noise or smell?

These are all valid grounds so focus on the relevant planning issues if you want your objection to be considered. Unfortunately, if you object on the grounds that it will affect house values, the objection will not be considered relevant despite their probably being a sound planning reason for objecting in the first place.

What grounds should you be focussing on

The most common grounds to object on are those that affect people’s personal circumstances like noise, access to daylight and sunlight, outlook, construction impacts and impacts on parking.

There are many others which affect the immediate surroundings of a site like design, impact on the conservation area or listed building, impacts on trees, basements, impacts on green or open space or metropolitan open land, transport, loss or impact on community facilities, transport.

Much like the issues surrounding personal circumstances, you can also object to the living conditions of future occupiers of a residential development. For instance, issues such as daylight, noise, outlook, size of units, and potential for overlooking.

(Do bear in mind though, if you live in major cities, that planning officers tend to use the 18-metre rule as an acceptable distance for overlooking. It feels pretty arbitrary but you have to draw a line somewhere…You will see this distance referenced in applicants’ supporting material).

Be reasonable and concise

Just as ineffective as an objection that has nothing to do with planning, is an objection which touches on every conceivable ground under the sun but is not related to the scheme.

On top of this, objections can sometimes be unreasonable. Whilst you may have considered the relevant planning issues, only object to the application if it has a genuine impact on you or the area. A planning officer will read the objection themselves and quickly realise whether the objection is reasonable or not. They won’t think your access to daylight if you live 100m away, for instance.

Instead try to keep your objection as concise as possible that touches on the immediate issues with the proposal. And if the proposal genuinely affects you then say so. Objections are an opportunity to comment on a proposal (you can support the application for the same reasons if you like!) but sometimes, a planning officer may genuinely need help from residents in understanding the full impact of the proposal.

So keeping comments to the facts can help an officer immeasurably when they have 70 other cases just like this one. Making this simple step will help your objection stand out from the crowd.

Seek outside advice

If you want your objection letter to have the most impact and written in a way that is going to be refined to the key issues, then planning consultants do offer a service to send objections on your behalf.

Depending on the size of the consultancy, some set a much larger fee for this over others. It is worth doing a bit of homework to understand how much money is necessary to be spent to get the right points across. A lot of consultants and small consultancies are just as qualified and capable for the job as the larger consultancies. So consider this when choosing someone to help you with your objection. For instance, I know someone who was charging four figures (!) when working for a large consultancy but now they have set up on their own only charges a couple of hundred pounds for the same service.

I hope you found this helpful. Let me know if there are any other topics that you would like to see an article on or would just like advice on. Thanks!

What happens to your planning application behind closed doors…

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Let me set the picture before I get into this.  Planning departments throughout the UK are hugely under-resourced.  Cuts have been made on top of cuts and councils and departments have been tasked with generating income for themselves so that they may become less reliant on funding from central government.  Whether you think that is correct or not is another matter entirely but the truth is that planning departments are operating with a skeleton team in almost all instances with no sign of the number of applications getting any less.  And if you are a planning officer with any sort of professional pride, you are stuck between a rock and hard place in doing your best to provide a good service whilst also determining applications quickly enough so that other applicants aren’t left waiting for an eternity.

Planning applications take too long to determine.  We all know it, especially planning departments who are constantly under pressure to provide a good service to residents and stakeholders.

So the process…

Once your application is received

Once your application is submitted it effectively goes on to an electronic (most likely) ‘pile’ waiting to be allocated to an officer.

Some councils have validation teams which check to make sure your planning application is ‘valid’ before an officer can assess it.  It can differ from to Council to Council slightly but broadly speaking, the validation requirements are the same.  Each Council will have a dedicated webpage on validation requirements that you can check out.

Other councils have the officer themselves check the applications as they come in.  The point being here that they can recognise whether an application is even worth pursuing before making an application valid.  The officer can then call the agent or applicant up to let them know why their proposal may not be worth pursuing.

The idea is that it saves both the Council and applicant a hell of a lot of time in writing reports, consulting, validating and appealing when it might be best for the concept to be re-thought.  You might think this sounds strange, but from experience this is surprisingly effective.

Description of development

When applicants submit an application using the Planning Portal they can write whatever description of development they like in the application forms.

Once the application is received though it is for the Council to create the description of development (usually it falls with the officer).  Generally speaking, apart from slight variations, the description of development is the same across Councils depending on what is being proposed.

It is important, on the Council’s part, to ensure that the description of development is correct.  If it is incorrect, then the Council can leave themselves open to Judicial Review if the public were consulted on the wrong description of development.  So, ultimately the applicant can write whatever they want on the forms but it is for the Council to ensure that it is correct.

Once validated

Once the application has been made valid, now it is for the officer to organise consultations to the public and internal colleagues.

In terms of public consultations, most Councils still send letters to the members of the public.  As a cost-saving measure though, some Councils have elected to send e-alerts instead via e-mail.  So if you are wondering why you haven’t had a letter lately, have a look on the Council’s website and see if you need to register for e-alerts.

As to the process of internal consultation, depending on the level of complexity of the case, communication between officers within the Council can vary.

For instance, some Councils have ‘surgeries’ with various departments to discuss the less contentious applications.  Formal observations are then sent outside of these surgeries.  Generally, only minor cases are brought to these meetings.  Minor cases are usually handled by the more junior officers.

Major cases are usually allocated to senior and principal officers and are usually kept to more formal procedures.  Major cases can sometimes be discussed at a major case conference which usually includes the planning officer, a manager, and any representatives from other departments with a particular interest or concern with the case.  That way any issues that arise can be discussed instantly rather than back and forth on e-mails which can take a long time.

For some specialist areas, like conservation and heritage, the case may be discussed within their own team to get guidance, if required, from other more experienced conservation officers.

Contacting and negotiating with officers

Planning officers can sometimes have close to 100 cases in their name (!).  That officer will be getting calls multiple times a day from applicants all asking for an update on their planning application and, more often than not, to complain about slow progress.

Most people’s idea of getting a response from an officer, if they are hard to reach, is to take the aggressive approach and go immediately to the manager or head of service.  Whilst this may work, only keep that tactic up your sleeve in exceptional circumstances.  If you bother managers every time you have submitted an application you will quickly get a reputation within the department and it will lead you to getting an even slower response.  It could also damage your relationship with the officer going forward.  Sometimes just sheer workload prevents officers from contacting all applicants as quickly as they’d like.

The best way to get a response is to be as helpful to the planning officer whenever possible.  Start sending weekly check-ins towards the end of the consultation period (21 days).

There may be some objections that would help to have your direct response on.  If you are lucky enough to be offered the chance to make amendments to the scheme then send amended drawings back to the officer as quickly as possible.  And generally, ask if there is anything you can do to help whenever possible.

The more helpful you can be the more likely the officer is to want to help you out and determine your application ahead of all the other applications on their list.

Determining an application

When an officer comes to make a decision on the application they will take many things into consideration.  If you have applied for pre-application advice prior to making an application, then you will already have been made aware of the issues with your proposal and this will be taken into consideration when making a decision.  Usually the same officer will carry through from the pre-application advice to the application.  If not, make sure the new officer is aware of the previous advice you have received.  It will come up on their planning history search anyway but it won’t hurt to just make them aware when you make initial contact.

Depending on the length of time between the pre-application advice being issued and the submission of your planning application, the advice set out in your letter will carry more weight.  If you once applied for pre-application advice a few years ago and the policy has since changed then the advice will carry little to no weight.  Do not assume that if you received pre-application advice once that the advice will be relevant for years to come.  So if you are looking to apply for pre-application advice, follow it up quickly with a planning application.

Whether the application is determined by planning committee or by the officer is set out within the Council’s scheme of delegation.  All major applications are taken to planning committee but sometimes smaller applications may be taken to committee as well depending on the political pressures of that Council and if there has been a particular public interest in the proposal.

Why people get frustrated

It is no great surprise why people get frustrated with the planning system and local Councils, in particular.  Some information or advice you receive from one Council may differ quite drastically from another and it can be very hard to get any information when you need it most.

Generally speaking, being as helpful and as courteous as possible is the best way of ultimately getting what you want from the Council.  Building that relationship with officers will ultimately help you in getting your application determined in front of others in their list and it will also help to build a long-term relationship with the Council and officer too.

But sometimes the Council can be downright unreasonable and extremely guarded in giving away any information.  That’s when you might want to employ different tactics but, as I say above, I would use this sparingly to avoid getting an unwanted reputation within the Council that will ultimately affect any future work in the area.

What are your experiences with Council planning departments?  Have you found any tactics particularly successful/unsuccessful when talking to the planning department?

How to choose the right consultant for your planning application – 6 simple steps

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So you’ve decided what you want to be built and you need planning permission.  But where do you start to make sure that you get the best possible chance of getting planning permission.

After you have decided what you would like to build, you will need to choose the right people to turn your aspirations into reality.  There is so much choice but how can you be sure that the person you want to choose is any good?

This article will set out everything you need to know so that you can hire the best consultant for your project.  First off…

#1 – The money

Whilst this might seem obvious, setting a budget is the first step towards securing the outcome of your project.  It will help you to understand how ambitious you can be and determine the level of service you can expect from a consultant once you start receiving quotes.

#2 – Prepare a brief

Setting a brief for the project is one of the most important steps you can make.  This will make it clear to your consultant exactly what tasks you want completed that they can cost for.  But also this is also important for you, as the client, because it will make it clear to both parties how involved you intend to be.  Which is usually where most tensions lie when it comes to getting planning permission.  The more precise the brief, the best chance you have of getting what you want and getting permission for it.

You might just want your consultant to produce some drawings.  Or maybe a supporting report so that you can manage the application yourself.  Or you might want a consultant to handle the whole process for you whilst you go about your day job.

If you haven’t handled a planning application before, nor dealt with a local planning authority before, then I would personally suggest that you employ the help of a consultant to handle the application process for you.  Unless you are confident that you can handle the application yourself.  I can’t tell you how many times I have seen cases where applicants have tried to handle the application themselves only for their application to be refused with no clue how they got there.  If you are uncomfortable with that level of uncertainty, then employing some help to manage the process might be the way to go.

Having said that, it is possible to handle the application yourself.  I won’t get into this here as I will create a step-by-step guide to handling your own planning application in another post.

#3 – Finding your consultant

First off, I would suggest finding an ACTIVE local consultant.  Finding the right consultant can be a bit of a minefield but I would consider these steps when appointing one:

  • Have a look at the planning search engine for your local authority to find out which consultants have been active in your area AND which of them have been successful for developments similar to yours. It’s all very well having someone local, but if they aren’t very successful at getting an approval then there’s no point in choosing them at all.  Someone with experience will know what the local authority likes in terms of design and may have built up a relationship with the officers.  For example, in the image below I can see a typical development that has been successful which would be worth looking at further;

  • Once you have found someone successful locally then I would visit their website and have a look at their projects page. This will both verify that they are a professional outfit but it also gives you an opportunity to find out if they regularly work on projects similar to yours.
  • Meet them. Particularly your architect.  And I would suggest multiple times.  This allows the architect to get a clear understanding of your site but it also allows you to build a personal chemistry between the two of you.  It may sound like nothing but find out whether you can build a good working relationship with them.  Will they take offence if you want amendments to their work? Are they enthusiastic about your dream project?  I’d personally want an architect that produces something that I love, rather than what the architect loves.
  • Or, alternatively, you don’t have to meet them at all. Some people are perfectly happy for consultants to work remotely to produce what they need.  If this is you then I would at least give them a call or video chat for the same reasons as above.
  • And finally I would verify their work. You may have found someone who you like the look of, but was their client happy with their work?  Sometimes the client’s details are provided in the application form for the planning application.  Give them a call and find out how it went.  Did they have any problems? How satisfied were they of their work?  Is there anything they would change?  All of the measures above combined will give you a good indication that you are getting the right person.

#4 – Qualifications

  • Are they essential to you? Is your planning consultant a member of the RTPI, for instance?
  • This is not essential to everyone. A high proportion of planners who work for local authorities, for instance, are not members of the RTPI as it is not prerequisite to getting the job.  You will tend to find that most people that work for private planning consultancies will be members of the RTPI, in part for insurance reasons.  But some of the best planners I know are not members.  Someone’s level of experience is a far better indicator of quality in my book than being a member of the RTPI.

#5 – Fee proposal and timings

  • Once you like the look of a consultant, ask them to prepare a fee proposal for the work in line with the brief that you have prepared. Find out EXACTLY what is included in the fee proposal.  It is critical that you clearly understand what you are paying for.  If you want some tweaks to the design, will that be extra? How many meetings does it include? Does the fee include meetings and calls with the local authority directly? Are CGI visuals extra?
  • Be clear on exactly what is expected to be produced, how much it will cost and agreed timescales. You should also be clear on when your consultant expects to be paid.  This will vary from consultant to consultant.  One consultant may like to be paid monthly whereas another may request the full amount once you have secured planning permission.

 #6 – Once appointed…

  • Once you have instructed your consultant, check up on them regularly and make sure they are meeting the agreed timescales. Do not assume that they are getting on with the work without discussion with you.  The best consultants tend to be the busiest.  Don’t let your project fall to the bottom of the pile.

This should help you turn that corner and give you the confidence to appoint the best possible consultant for your project which should, hopefully, get you the planning consent that you want.

I’d be interested to hear of any other steps that personally help you find your consultant.  Is there a particular resource that you use, for instance? Thanks!

What is an Article 4 Direction? And how to deal with them

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What is an Article 4 Direction?

Article 4 Directions are one of the topics planning departments get asked most about.   What are they? What do they mean? How do I get round them?  This article will give you the tools you need to find out exactly what an Article 4 Direction is, how it affects you and your property, and the best ways of identifying them.

To understand how an Article 4 Direction works, first it is important to understand what permitted development rights are.

What are permitted development rights?

There are certain forms of development that do not require planning permission and these are known as permitted development rights (or “PD” rights).  You can find a full list of PD rights (here) within the General Permitted Development Order (or “GPDO”).  Permitted development can include anything from one of the following areas (not an exhaustive list):

  • Alterations and extensions to a house (NB: not a flat or apartment);
  • Changes of use – i.e. office to residential;
  • Temporary buildings and uses;
  • Non-domestic alterations and extensions;
  • Demolition;
  • Communications;
  • Mining and mineral exploration.

Within each of these classes, the GPDO sets out exactly what is permitted and what isn’t.

What does it mean when an Article 4 direction affects your property?

A common misconception is that Article 4 Directions prevent someone from applying for planning permission to carry out certain forms of development, (like extending your house, for instance) but that is not the case.  An Article 4 Direction simply removes all or some of the PD rights for a site or area.  This doesn’t mean that your ability to get permission for that work is taken away altogether.  If an Article 4 Direction affects your property and removes the same permitted development that you want to use to extend your house, you will need to submit a planning application for the works as opposed to being able to do them without permission.  Not ALL permitted development rights are prevented by an Article 4 Direction, just specific types of development that are specified by the Article 4 Direction itself.

So if your proposal is prevented by an Article 4 Direction it just means that you will have to apply to the local planning authority for permission to develop your proposal just like any other normal planning permission.

How to find out if your property or area is affected by an Article 4 Direction?

Unfortunately (and frustratingly), each local authority has its own way of publicising information on Article 4 Directions but here are some of the methods you can use to find out whether one affects you:

  • Council website – Some local authorities have dedicated web pages on their website specifically for Article 4 Directions;
  • Proposals Map – Some local authorities use a ‘Proposals Map’ to visually display what policies affect areas across the Council’s area. Some of these can be very intuitive and easy to use and you can easily find out what policies affect a certain site by the click of a button;
  • Check Conservation Area statements – If your site is located within a Conservation Area, the details of the Article 4 Direction can be set out within the Conservation Area Statement for that area;
  • Employ a consultant – Or, if all of this is too much effort you can of course hire a consultant to research this information on your behalf to take all of the stress away. The consultant will be able to tell you exactly what Article 4 Directions are in place, if any, and the best way of making your dream build a reality.

Happy planning!

If you found this article helpful then please leave a comment below!  Or if there is any other topic you’d also like to see answered then just post it below.

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