The holiday season is now in full swing & for about the next 6 weeks we tend to see a noticeable downturn in the level of new enquiries which I think is pretty much typical amongst most services. This, for us, is a time when we normally attend to the updating & improvement of our internal administration, so the forecasted lull over the coming weeks will be put to good use. The strange thing is that your Local Planning Departments tend to cite the opposite & correspondence suddenly goes unanswered or the Case Officer dealing with your application is off yet again on another 3 week jaunt.
So, is it worth contacting the Planning Department for an Officers opinion on your scheme prior to submitting a formal application when their response times are getting seriously worse as each year passes? Well like all things it depends on a lot of variables.
From simple observations & anecdotal evidence, I would say that the ordinary householder has a distinct response time advantage over professional Agents in this respect when writing or contacting the Council. I can only assume that the ‘general public’ are easier to deal with & satisfy than ‘Professional Agents’ who often require a far higher level of detail & concise opinion from the Case Officer rather than the wooly explanations they usually offer simply quoting policy reference numbers that you should be adhering to.
I can see their point of view. When offering a clear personal opinion either way on a scheme the subsequent application can quite easily become high profile for example by a very articulate anti-lobbying neighbour that affects the outcome contrary to what the Case Officer may have initially advised.
We (MSM) only tend to make pre-application enquiries for schemes that we know will become high profile or have a high front end fee cost to the client in order to pursue the more detailed scheme. Regretfully, much of the site specific Planning advice we receive is usually after a 6 week wait that simply regurgitates the relevant elements of the current Planning Policy that we knew about anyway – so you still end having to take a view.
Most Planning Officers these days wont even visit a site for an opinion without having some for of sketch plan to comment on. Hopefully, if you are engaging a professional Design Agent to draw out your development scheme then they should be able to advise you right from the start what will likely receive an approval & what wont so use their expertise & experience to your advantage & listen to what they have to say.
If you are not using a Design Agent then I would advise allowing some time for a pre-application contact with the Council whether it be through a letter, drawing, site visit or an internal office meeting. About 4 weeks should suffice but always follow up about 2 weeks later if your written reply is still outstanding. I personally would not rely on a simple verbal opinion as your final application may be given to another Case Officer so cover all the bases.
Your sketch scheme doesn’t have to be professionally prepared & a simple hand drawn (but roughly to scale) plan is normally enough for the Case Officer. However, like anything in life, the more precise & accurate you can be with your initial presentation, you will likely receive a better quality of reply.
I recently came across a very impressive service that took your digital photographic information & created an ‘as built’ photographic realistic view of your extended property. This is a great way of demonstrating your intentions & is ideally suited for pre-application discussions with the Case Planning Officer. This image can then be used to also support the 2D drawings when your application is submitted. The great thing about this service is that it can all be completed remotely by utilising your own photographs without the cost of a surveyors visit. Simply send them the photos & a small pencil sketch of what you intend doing & ‘hey-presto’ out comes a photograph of the finished extension – Great stuff!
So, a few tips……
1. Always allow 4 to 6 weeks when waiting for a Planning Officer to reply to your pre-application enquiry.
2. Try to provide the Case Officer with as detailed description, drawing or visual presentation of what you are trying to achieve.
3. Always obtain the Case Officers name & follow up every week after the initial 2 weeks have elapsed.
4. Always try to obtain the CAse Officers opinion confirmed in writing. If they refuse then you write to them to confirm the relevant details & conclusions of your meeting or discussion.
5. If you know that your scheme is already high profile & has contentious Planning issues then don’t bother wasting your time getting this fact confirmed in writing – submit it straight away as a formal Planning application & take your chances that way.
6. Always remember that it is easier for a Case Officer to be informally negative about your marginal scheme than it is for them to stretch their neck above the parapet in support. An early negative informal opinion will nearly always result in a later Planning refusal where it just may have passed without one.