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Our Experiences in Planning System [in]-Efficiency

We often feel the best way to progress a planning application is to initially engage with the Local Planning Authority through the pre-application process to determine their initial views and what would be required to achieve a positive result.
With some LPA’s we can be confident of receiving some really useful advice, however, on a ‘recent’ site we have been working on, we have experienced significant failings within the planning system first hand. I won’t name the LPA in question but its in an area we regularly work and I’m sure similar issues have been experienced by other consultants & developers with this – and other – LPAs.
I have outlined below a timeline of our recent experience. My point here isn’t to bash the LPA in question – we are all aware of the pressure the public service sector is under, in particular following the upheaval brought about by COVID – and now the current climate, but what really concerns us is twofold:
  1. A massive lack of accountability within the planning system. There are clear issues which are highlighted from this experience that demonstrate that – from the outside looking in – there seems to be no-one available that takes responsibility for ensuring a smooth management of the planning departments. This is not the first instance we have had issues with this particular LPA, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

    In fact, we could write whole extra blog about the length of time and lack of communication from the same LPA to clear pre-commencement conditions – the information of which had already been submitted and considered at full planning stage…
  1. The effect caused by inefficiency from LPA’s on Development timescales. We are often reminded by Central Government of the lack of supply for first time buyers, the housing deficit and an apparent commitment to build [insert massive number here] of houses per year. Let’s be clear – house builders and developers want to build, but with delays like the one identified below, it’s no wonder Local Government targets are constantly being missed across the board.

    The housing market can also change a lot over two years. What may be viable or desirable in the market now may not bear any relevance to what may have been submitted previously.
From previous experience, we have been specifically asked by the LPA in question to submit for pre-application advice prior to a full submission. As explained above, we are more than happy to do this as in our experience engagement early on in the process ultimately leads to a much more streamlined application and avoids any issues later down the line.
On this site, we had done as requested. In addition we are very aware of the need to keep momentum with the LPA’s on a planning project so we always make sure our responses to information requested are expedited to avoid further delays as can be seen from their various requests.
We’ve outlined a timeline of our experience below. Unfortunately none of the below communication features on the Local Planning Authority’s Online Public Access system…presumably because it highlights significant shortcomings…what a surprise!
If anyone has had a similar experience, we’d be really interested to hear about it and (hopefully) bring about some change.
Points to note:
  • The application in question is for 3 houses (i.e. a ‘minor’ development)
  • There are no significant constraints on the site, and sits within a sub-urban area surrounded by residential use.
  • The garden plot next door has recently gained outline approval for two dwellings.
Here’s the timeline…with a jaw dropper at the end!
Pre-Application Period
21st September 2020: Submitted a fully designed proposal, including D&A Statement for Pre-Application advice.
22nd September 2020: Received generic response letter advising of registration and advising their response in 28 days, though the LPA is experiencing a delay in processing. To be expected – no probs.
2nd December 2020: Chased response from the case officer (no response received)
4th December 2020: Chased the case officer again with phone call & voicemail (no response received)
14th January 2021: Chased the case officer again via e-mail (no response received)
26th January 2021: Send e-mail to the ‘planning@.…” and case officer chasing the application. Again. (no response received)
1st February 2021: Ring the planning office again for an update. Advised to contact the Area Delivery Manager and given phone number.
1st February 2021: Ring the number provided for the Area Delivery Manager. Get lost in the phone system. Hang up.
2nd February 2021: E-mail Delivery Manager for a response as we are getting nowhere with the case officer or duty planner or telephone system.
2nd February 2021: FIRST COMMUNICATION from the LPA (except from the generic response), from the Area Delivery Manager advising they will “investigate the delay”.
22nd February 2021: Chase the Delivery Manager for a response following their e-mail (no response received)
16th March 2021: Send a formal letter to the LPA copying in the Head of Planning, Case Officer and Area Delivery Manager expressing our dissatisfaction at the service and also our request for a refund for the pre-application. (Note to self: Check with Client whether they actually received a refund). 
End of pre-application period. 
Result: 5 months wasted with no response received from the LPA – despite being requested on numerous occasions on other sites to submit for pre-application advice prior to full planning submission to ‘avoid delays’.
Planning Period
3rd June 2021: Submit the same application for determination through the Planning Portal.
4th June 2021: Receive automated response from the LPA advising the application has been received.
28th July 2021: Response from the Planner requesting additional information (visibility splays)
29th July 2021: Second e-mail from the Planner requesting additional information (up to date tree survey)
29th July 2021: Our holding response.
3rd August 2021: E-mail to LPA with all our updated information.
5th August 2021: E-mail from LPA requesting Extension of Time to await tree information.
23rd September 2021: Submission of tree information following tree survey.
23rd September 2021: E-mail from Case Officer advising of a change in policy which requires an amendment to the red line (?)
24th September 2021: Our response attaching the updated information.
At this point we have responded to all the requests in good time, with the assumption that any issues on the application are now dealt with. Great stuff! No significant issues appear to have been raised but we’re happy to agree an extension of time (I.e. we don’t really have a choice unless we want a refusal)
4th November 2021: Chase Case Officer for application progress.
5th November 2021: Response advising they don’t have capacity to review, but will do so the next week.
6th December 2021: Chase Case Officer again for application progress by e-mail (no response)
(Further chasing goes here… no responses)
31st May 2022: Our Client weighs in at this point, and the Case Officer responds advising the application has been given to the “back log” team. Great! Something is moving now.
6th June 2022: Response from the back log team identifying (amongst other additional considerations):-
  • Outstanding Highways objection to highways visibility…We had already provided this updated information back in July 2021
  • Request for additional elevational details… We had already issued to the LPA back in July 2021
  • Revisions to drawing labelling… We had already issued back to the LPA in July 2021
  • Request for tree survey information… (see above!)
  • Further amendments to the red line…(see above!)
  • In addition, request for design changes…a year after submission.
9th June 2022: Snotty request from the LPA for ALL relevant information to the application, in addition to design changes and responses.
21st June 2022: Our further submission to the LPA with ALL relevant information, updates, and explanation of all design changes as requested, in addition to a resubmission of all the previous items which had mysteriously disappeared from the LPA’s filing system…
22nd June 2022: Confirmation of receipt from the new Case Officer! Party time! 
11th July 2022: We have not yet received a response and chase again.
13th July 2022: More chasing.
13th July 2022: Response from the case officer requesting MORE amendments… and a further paragraph stating…
“I would ask that you incorporate these amendments into a further scheme, although I must stress that due to workloads and backlogs we will be unable to work on multiple iterations of the scheme and the scheme to be formally submitted as amendments for determination should be comprehensively prepared to meet all the above points, the application will then be subject to re-consultation before determination.”
14th July 2022: Our response with ALL the amendments into a further scheme… in addition, stating…
“It is very unfortunate that we were not in receipt of a response from [LPA] for our request for pre-application advice on this scheme – submitted in September 2020 – from which I am sure we could have adequately addressed any comments raised without adding to your workload now.”
18th July 2022: A further request from the LPA for all the plans etc we wish to be determined “on a formal e-mail, with a covering letter setting out a description of the amendments and the full list of plan numbers to be determined for a further consultation exercise”…
18th July 2022: Our response to the above, with all the information requested, and a formal letter setting out the documents including covering letter with comprehensive description of the amendments.
9th September 2022: Decision notice received!!!!
End of Planning Period
Two years after our initial pre-application for 3 dwellings of a similar density to the surroundings, on an unconstrained site with no significant design issues or otherwise identified throughout the process, on a site readily available for development, in a suburban residential area, and a precedent for new dwellings on an adjacent site,…we receive a positive decision. Finally!
BUT here’s the best part…
30th September 2022: Letter received from the LPA stating:
“On checking our records, we note there has been no formal response or resolution to the pre-application submission. There also appears to have been no contact between the Council and either the applicant or the agent for an extensive period of time.
It is accepted that the pre-application stage can aid the effectiveness and efficiency of a planning application submission, there may be reasons why a response from the Council has not been provided, such as prioritising a need to determine statutory planning applications.
Therefore, your pre-application will be treated as closed unless we hear how you wish to proceed with your submissions within 14 days from the date of this letter.”
Ummmmm…? Enough said. 

Whoever said the planning system was broken?!

Written by Guy Siragher (Associate Director, RDC)
Connect with Guy here on LinkedIn.