Focus On: The Importance of a Planning Consultant

Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It
9th November 2019

Julia Riddle, one of our planning experts at the Build It Live shows and the director at Castle Planning, explains the importance of hiring a planning consultant when applying to your local authority for permission to build

What is the role of a planning consultant?

We help you to identify what might be possible with a building site. I give advice at the Build It Live shows and people ask me what they can do with their homes or plots of land.

Your local council is your first port of call for granting permission to build and will often point you in the direction of planning policies, but these can be confusing.

A specialist consultant will understand all the rules and then help you interpret what that means in terms of what you can actually do with your site or building.

When is best to involve a professional?

As early as possible. The first stage might be that you go to the council, who will ask you to submit a pre-application. You have to ask them, broadly, what might be achievable for your land – ie can I self build a house?

There’s often a fee involved here and a timescale of a few weeks, where the local authority will deliberate and come back with a response – so you’ll know if, theoretically, a residential dwelling might be feasible. For an existing home, you’ll be able to determine the approximate scale of an extension that might be allowed, for example.

You can then go back to them with a more detailed pre-application with the specific design of the house and your proposed layout of the site. If you have a planning consultant involved, you’ll probably figure out those basic principal issues with them early on.

You would also have established what might be sensible in terms of scale, location on the plot, the detail of the design. This puts you in a position to only go through one pre-application to test it with your council.

As a specialist, they would help you interpret the local authority’s response, to make sure that when you go in and make your full application, you’re as likely as possible to achieve planning permission. The earlier in the process you get someone involved, the easier and quicker it will be for you.

Why is it important to involve a consultant?

They are able to identify what is likely to be granted planning permission, and also assist with any of the additional documents you might need to support your proposal.

Say you’ve done the pre-application, and you’re thinking about the response that you had, they can help you tailor your full submission with the council’s feedback in mind. For example, if the local authority have said you can only have one and a half storeys, your planning consultant might look at that and advise adapting the design.

When the application has been made, the council will liaise various internal experts, on topics such as trees, design and ecology. Your planning consultant can identify those officers
and reach out to them directly to ensure your submission meets their specific requirements.

This means you avoid any surprises later on. For instance, if the tree officer wants a survey, you as the applicant have to organise and pay for a surveyor, which could delay the proposal. A planning consultant can help you with putting all those pieces together, so you can plan
and budget in terms of time and cost, before you make an application.

Fundamentally, they’ll be able to help you identify and minimise risk throughout the process.

Where can you find a planning consultant?

Check the Royal Town Planning Institute. It’s a directory of RTPI accredited planning consultancies – anyone from there will be appropriately chartered and registered.

Any advice for people choosing not to use a professional for their scheme?

Not every project needs a planning consultant. If your plan is straightforward, such as demolishing an existing house and re-building something of a similar size, where the character is in keeping with the neighbours or you’re not in a conservation area, you probably don’t need this level of assistance.

Your architect will be able to advise you on whether it would be helpful to get a specialist on board, and you could always speak to someone early in the process if you’re concerned.

Any other planning tips for us?

We’ve discussed the importance of identifying the potential problems early on, and this really is key. If you are on a site that’s more challenging, such as one in a conservation area, then it is worth speaking to a planning consultant to work alongside your designer to overcome any potentially sensitive issues.

Definitely don’t wait until your application is refused to approach a specialist, asking them to appeal it; it’s always better to speak to someone before that happens. It’s much easier to withdraw an application and resubmit a revised version or be confident that an appeal is the only route before you get that refusal.

If you are concerned that your submission might be rejected, speak to someone before it happens so that they can properly advise you.

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