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23/03/2020

How can we get the most from local planning authorities?

Having switched from the public to the private sector, Rachel Murrell has seen the planning system from both sides - and thinks private sector planners can make life easier for their public sector counterparts

After 15 years in local planning authorities, I’m experiencing the planning system from the other side of the fence. Difficulties in getting hold of case officers, holding meaningful pre-application discussions and being kept informed during the application process are common gripes.

Planning Practice Guidance advocates pre-application engagement as it “offers significant potential to improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system and improve the quality of planning applications and their likelihood of success”. This rationale cannot be faulted, but many councils are not fully realising this potential. Most planners work for local planning authorities because they want to see development happen, but in the right way. But with budget cuts, high caseloads and problems recruiting experienced people, it’s understandable that many are struggling.

“Most planners work for local planning authorities because they want to see development happen, but in the right way”

The benefits of pre-application engagement are understood, but prioritising this above work with more immediate deadlines often does not happen. A case officer will usually have a range of live applications, prior approvals and conditions discharges as well as pre-application proposals. It’s important that we find ways to work within these constraints.

But there are approaches that private sector planners can take to make the application process less of a bumpy ride:

  • Meet ward members and the leader early on to get an understanding of the planning committee’s key priorities.
  • Establish a good relationship with the case officer. Being polite doesn’t mean that you can’t be assertive. Only elevate problems to a more senior level where there is a clear reason.
  • At pre-application stage there is a nervousness about saying ‘yes’ that derives from balancing internal, external and political pressures. Be clear on areas where there is common agreement and focus on resolving tricky issues.
  • Make life easier for the case officer, e.g., write the planning statement to mirror the style of planning reports so that data can be easily transposed.
  • Speed the planning validation process by titling supporting documents to accord with the national and local validation list. Provide a table setting out the documents required and what has been submitted.
  • For large proposals it may be worth offering to fund a planner post to ensure there are resources to deal with the applications.  

Rachel Murrell MRTPI is a planning associate with Barton Willmore

Image credit | iStock

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