All new homes require planning permission from the local authority before they can be built. But if you’re visiting this article you’re probably already aware of that.
Submitting a planning application for a self-build project can feel like a huge step and a risk. What is less well known is the option of pre-application advice: insights from the local authority before a planning application is submitted.
What is a ‘pre-app’?
A pre-app is a request for specific planning advice from the planning officers employed by the local authority, i.e. the council.
It surfaces information around the project and relevant policies that helps the individual to understand the rules, amend their proposal if necessary and achieve a successful planning application the first time round. But it is no guarantee.
Each local planning authority has its own local planning policies that all applications should adhere to - alongside the national framework which dictates some of the wider rules. The policies are usually similar from council to council, even if they are phrased differently each time. This is where a planning consultant comes in handy (more on this later).
Rather than a yes/no answer, a pre-app provides the applicant with outline advice which might include suggestions of changes to be made to the proposal. It can act as a warning or reassurance for applicants before the time and expense of a full planning submission.
A pre-app gives you the opportunity to ask the fundamental questions and investigate any concerns you have about the site and project, e.g. ‘Can I build a house here?’
It will also help you to understand policy requirements of the local council and any constraints for the site. Identifying potential problems early on offers you the opportunity to explore alternative solutions with your designer before the final planning application is submitted.
They can save time and money in the planning process by avoiding costly mistakes that could result in a failed planning application.
A ‘good pre-app’ is one that offers a clear (positive or negative) opinion of your scheme.
When is a pre-app necessary?
It can be good to test the waters if you’re unsure. A planning consultant is often the best person to ask, but your architect and designer can also advise you about completing a pre-app.
Is your site in a conservation area?
Does your project represent a change in the area?
Has the site had a previous application refused?
Is it a brand new dwelling, as opposed to a replacement?
Does it change the ‘use’ of the land?
If you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, you might want to consider a pre-app. It can give an early insight into the council’s likely response to the planning application.
A conservation area, for example, means that council’s planning officers will have comment and authority on design, as well as size. It may be important to have conversations about the design early on, indicating the intended style of the build and offering some reference material.
Is a pre-app process always the same?
In theory, each local planning authority determines its own process and so the information required for your pre-app may differ. What is involved and the type of service isn’t always consistent. For example, the amount of detail you’re required to submit, the cost of the consultation and length of time it takes to get an answer may vary.
In practice, it’s fairly straightforward. Even if the costs and the information requested during the process are slightly different each time, the councils mostly take a similar approach.
It always involves a discussion with a planning officer. Whether an in-person consultation or an online form, it is a submission of a project proposal including some of the essential details, such as size and location on the plot. As the type of pre app service on offer differs in councils (you might be expected to meet the planning officer in person at your site or discuss it via email) so too the value of this advice.
Some authorities offer advice on how to use the pre-app advice service. This procedural advice from a member of that authority ensures that the pre-application is completed correctly and might include an in-person appointment.
What should be included in a pre-app?
Your pre-app might include a cover letter and pre-app submission document.
Our advice is to only ask only the questions that are critical - including the information for the basis of these questions. If you provide detailed drawings of the intended design, you might initiate a complicated and lengthy design conversation despite your pre-app being aimed at assessing the outline details, e.g. volume or location.
The cover letter (often written by your planning consultant) will include some of the following:
Project proposal description
Site location plan, indicating site ownership and boundaries
Area description and any relevant history
Any planning history, if relevant
The policies that are relevant to the proposal
Planning assessment for the layout, scale, design, accessibility, trees etc.
The pre-app document (created by your architect or designer) includes relevant documents referenced in the cover letter as well as further explanation, including:
Photos of the site
Photos of the area and architecture
Drawings, such as site analysis and a proposed site layout
Basic or vague designs of the property outline, if required (see below)
Many use the pre-app process to discuss site issues such as roads, footpaths and boundaries or ask about potential problems and whether the council might impose conditions to overcome them rather than refuse planning permission.
What do I get from a pre-app?
You will receive feedback on the proposal from the planning officer.
It is usually a written response, however, it could take the form of notes from an in person meeting. It will provide advice on the issues specified in relation to relevant policies. The planning officer may not comment on other sections of the proposal, if not specifically asked to.
The feedback is always useful. It might be non-committal but should answer your fundamental question. Positive feedback can give you confidence for success. Negative feedback should be constructive and will help to avoid a failed planning application.
An outright no will save you the time and money involved in a full planning application.
What is the timescale?
Once you have worked with your architect or designer, and planning consultant, to produce the relevant information and make a submission, a response usually takes from 2-8 weeks, potentially longer if the process is stretched out by an in-person meeting with the council.
The time it takes to complete a pre-app does not include the 8 or so weeks for the actual planning application so if you’re tight on time and have confidence in your application then this may not the best route to go down.
What is the cost?
Pre-apps can be free for extensions and other minor works. For new builds, expect the cost to be anything from £50 to £3,000 for a meeting and response letter. The price is set by each council and is sometimes dependent on the size of the build.
The downside of pre-applications is that there are no statutory frameworks. While planning applications have to be determined within 8 weeks, pre-apps don’t have a time limit or standard cost.
It’s worth noting that paying more for a pre-app is not necessarily a bad thing. Some councils charge very little and provide a very poor service. Charging more can mean that they have more time to spend on the process and provide better advice.
Remember that this cost does not include the work that your architect or designer will do to assemble all the relevant information for your submission.
Be aware (things to note)
Successful planning applications address all relevant planning policies and persuade the local authority planners that the proposed build satisfies all relevant criteria.
Be prepared. Preparation is key to a positive pre-app and successful planning application. We often take a formulaic approach that anticipates all the responses from the local authority. Plan ahead and be as well prepared as possible.
Inconsistent. Pre-app planning advice can be unreliable and expensive. Each local authority has a slightly different process and the quality of service can vary.
No guarantee. Any advice given is often the opinion of the particular planning officer rather than the entire authority so a positive response from your pre-app does not guarantee that your planning application will be approved and vice versa.
Ask only the critical questions. In some scenarios, disclosing detailed designs and requesting feedback risks the planning officer asking (and expecting) amendments to the scheme that you might not be prepared to make.
Confidential. All pre-apps are private. These conversations are not published on the register for all to see.
Cooperation. Working cooperatively with the council to find mutually acceptable compromise often results in the planning officer being more supportive of your build than they might otherwise have been.
Planning “speak”. Policies take some understanding. Each planning authority has its own policies and they are often written in complex language. A planning consultant will help you to navigate the policy speak and planning language and can also demonstrate your dedication to the process.
Planning pre-apps with Facit Homes
Planning applications are part of our turnkey service, but more often than not we don’t seek pre-application advice. We understand planning requirements and won’t complete a pre-app if we are confident that our design and project adheres to policies and gives planning officers every reason to approve the application.
The exceptions to this rule are projects that have a combination of reasons outlined above, such as a new dwelling with a change of ‘use’ for a plot in a conservation area - or a replacement dwelling in a new location on the plot. Our excellent success rate points to a reliable process.
On the rare occasions that we do complete pre-apps, our in-house design team discusses our submission with our planning consultant. He gives us great advice before we get started and looks over all documentation without visiting the site - giving us the planning officer’s perspective.
We don’t give too much information away and the pre-app is always focused on the questions we have about the project.
Researching all local policies that might be relevant or cause an issue ensures we create a realistic proposal.
Our planning consultant puts the pre-app into planning speak, referencing any policies and using planning language - a powerful tool that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Although not always essential, it is worth noting the benefits of working with a good planning consultant on a pre-app and full planning application. Their input can ensure that all proposals are framed in policy, avoiding inconsistent interpretation of guidelines by the planners.
A planning consultant also knows when to fight back and when to concede.
In our only application to be refused, we pushed back with ‘why’ following the advice of our planning consultant (and our in-house experience). In this case, the planning officers had no framework under which to refuse the application as all policies had been adhered to. It came down to inconsistencies in their communications and interpretations, and the application was granted on appeal.
An example of when we’ve done a pre-app
The project involved a contemporary design for a new dwelling in a prestigious residential Conservation Area in London. Replacing an existing run-down tennis court, the intended location for this new home is slightly overlooked by a few existing properties and we needed to change the use of the plot.
We completed a pre-app to check that a new property of a certain size and style in that location was feasible. The advice from the pre-app meeting was that the property height should be reduced and the location reoriented to the middle of the site. Our design followed these comments and resulted in a successful planning application.
For an in depth introduction into one council’s view on planning, you might want to listen to this podcast episode from House Planning Help.