Although the majority of us believe that the process of gaining planning permission should be all about good design and site layout, there are inevitably going to be subjective judgements made about what exactly these elements should look like.
Getting the planners to support your scheme can be half the battle towards having it approved. Even if they have some issues with the project, if they’re in your corner hopefully they’ll help steer you to an acceptable compromise.
So who exactly do you need as your ally in the planning process, and what’s the best way to win their support?
Applications are allocated to a particular council planning professional, known as the case officer. That individual administers your application, seeks feedback from various consultees and puts together a report with a recommendation to approve or refuse the submission.
Most decisions are taken by the planning officers themselves, though they are signed off by a senior person or the head of the department. Some schemes go to committee, where a group of local councillors makes a choice, albeit informed by the officer’s report. All applications get sent out to the parish or community council, and neighbours are informed too.
If the submission affects a listed building or if the property in question is in a conservation area, the local authority’s (LA) conservation officer might get involved. Their input could become a crucial part of the decision-making process.
If the site has trees on it, the LA’s tree officer will also be consulted. If flooding could be an issue, the Environment Agency will be called upon, and if there is any chance of major highway safety issues the highways authority will chip in, too.
So there can be quite a few people influencing your application, but generally it’s up to the case officer to decide whether any particular objection or issue raised is so significant as to sway their decision.
This person deals with large numbers of applications, and has the added pressure of hitting the eight-week deadline for most applications. What’s more, increasing numbers of planning officers work part time and may only be in the office two or three days per week.
Some of this time will be spent on site visits and some will be allocated to report writing – so don’t assume you’ll be able to get hold of them easily if you ring, or quickly if you email.
Also, don’t presume your case officer will be fully up to speed with your scheme until a good few weeks into the application period. Some individuals are chatty and helpful, others tight lipped and evasive. They’re under no obligation to discuss your case with you, meet you on site or to keep you informed of every step in your application.
Essentially, the better your affinity with your allocated officer, the more likely it is that at least some of the above will happen. However, it is important to stress that having this person as your new best friend might be desirable and helpful – but it’s equally helpful to have communicated that you’re committed to good design and achieving a successful project for all the people concerned. This group encompasses you, your neighbours and the wider community.
Rapport, then, is more about establishing shared values rather than swapping anecdotes from your holidays. So, when and how can you forge a relationship with these potentially elusive creatures?
Taking pre-application advice is very much encouraged these days, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know the planning officer. Some councils offer meetings, others don’t. Bear in mind the person you see at pre-app stage might not be the one who deals with your planning application, although continuity on this front is more common than a lack of it.
If the council does not offer face-to-face meetings and you only get a written response to your pre-app ideas, then take the opportunity to telephone the planning officer to seek clarification of the advice they’ve provided. If it’s negative, discuss ways to overcome the objections.
Ask if you can send in amended plans for further comment before you make your formal application. Working constructively with a planning officer to resolve differences and find mutually acceptable design solutions is an invaluable step towards a successful planning process.
The best way to get the planners on side is to make sure you have a well thought-out design and layout that’s well presented and clearly backed up by the right reports. Once you’ve sent in your submission and it’s been registered, don’t start bothering the planning officer immediately.
Leave things well alone for at least three weeks and keep an eye on the council’s website for any responses to your application from consultees. If there are points raised that you feel need addressing, that’s a good excuse to contact your case officer to see what they make of the comments.
If there’s no feedback that needs to be attended to, telephone anyway to introduce yourself and ask if the officer has all the information they need, and to see if they’d like to set up a site visit. These plot viewings are often done without arrangement, so don’t be surprised or offended if the officer declines to meet you.
This isn’t unusual and it’s not a personal slight, so it’s key not to set your sights too high in terms of the likely level of engagement you’re going to achieve. Don’t get agitated if the officer does not agree with your ideas – and don’t remind the officer that you pay their wages. Consider bringing in a planning consultant to help you if relations break down or get sticky.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this aspect of a building project. Local councillors can be your allies if things aren’t going well with the planning officer. Some are willing to give an uncommunicative official a prod, others won’t.
When a member of the planning office is opposed to your scheme, on occasion councillors will decide to step in and call an application to committee. The procedure for when and how this can be done varies from council to council.
On the other hand, when they’re wound up by objections to your scheme, councillors can be a nuisance – lobbying the planning officer, calling the application to committee and generally trying to obstruct your project. Whether you should engage with councillors in this type of situation is debateable.
Your focus needs to be on ensuring the planning officer writes a suitably positive report on your submission, and you can usually address the councillors at planning committee anyway. Engaging with negative councillors risks escalating a dispute − but if you trust your powers of diplomacy, it might be worth a try.
Appealing to your local MP is rarely effective. They would probably simply contact the head of planning, who in turn refers the matter back down to the case officer anyway.
Your focus for getting the planners on side must be about ensuring your design – and the presentation of it – is of the highest quality. That said, when their response to your scheme is somewhat marginal, then developing a rapport with the case officer can potentially boost your chances of getting approval.