An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

I just want to chat with a planning officer… help!

October 27th, 2011

Up until a few years ago it was quite possible to ring up a local planning authority, speak to an officer about a proposal, reach a view as to whether it was likely to be a runner or not, and that would be the end of the matter.

Now it seems that there is a conspiracy afoot to stop planning officers making contact with developers and practitioners outside of an extant planning application. There are, it seems, three tactics to keep us apart.

Tactic 1: Call centres. You ring up what you think is an officer’s direct line only to be spoken to by a ‘customer experience facilitator’ who demands your postcode, jots down a garbled interpretation of your message and promises to get someone to call you back. Last week a colleague was told that someone would call back ‘within ten working days’. A fortnight to return a call! Of course, if an officer decides not to call you back, you have to chase… and speak to the call centre again.

Tactic 2: Duty officers. I have no issue with officers taking it in turn to deal with queries. However, they are often the most junior staff who can do little more than read back the UDP, LDF or whatever. I have called up a number of authorities where the development control officers on duty have no idea what is happening with their own LDFs or LDPs. Hmm. The worst tactic however is to have a duty officer available only on certain days of the week. So three days out of five there is absolutely no-one to deal with the query.

Tactic 3: Pre application charges. I suspect that the barriers described above are all part of a cunning plan to get us on the track of paying pre application charges. A few years ago the courts declared these as unlawful, but the Labour administration changed this, allowing charges provided that they reflected the cost of providing the service.

How can it be then that an increasing number of local authorities impose a charge for a single meeting that is twice or three times the cost of a senior planning consultant attending the very same meeting and undertaking the very same preparation? That assumes of course that the consultant is paid for that initial meeting which is these days often not the case.

These charges have arisen just at the time when developers are doing everything they can to reduce up front costs of new schemes. They simply make development more inaccessible to smaller, local developers.

Ah, I hear you say, but they can save the developer time and money later. In some cases that is true, although that doesn’t help cashflow. I must say however that so far, in virtually every case that I have paid for pre-application advice I have been sorely disappointed with the quality of the preparation, the seniority of who we ended up meeting and the robustness of the advice given.

There is some positive news though. Yesterday I met with a local authority historically not known for its proactive approach. My developer client was positively welcomed into the area by a senior officer and told he would be allocated a single officer that would deal with all of his projects so that development could be sped through the system as smoothly as possible. We got constructive and positive comments and all for no pre-application charge.