Last month we discussed the early stages of an architectural project - meeting the client, taking the brief and producing the early design work. This month we move on to what is arguably the most challenging stage - obtaining planning permission!

I often advise clients that obtaining planning is much like a game of chess - a series of strategic and reactionary moves that should ultimately prove successful.

Too often we hear stories from new clients where they have been badly advised by a professional and have simply thrown in a planning application, then been surprised when it did not gain consent. It is essential to be much more strategic and engage the planning department and key stake-holders at an early stage.

On this particular project, we decided to make a submission for pre-application advice. A pre-app is where you seek initial advice from the planning department to cover various fundamentals about the proposal, such as principle of development, density and height.

The pre-app submission is often a document that will include all of the early stages of an architect’s work on the project. This includes site analysis, brief, proposal description, sketches and initial thoughts on design (image 1).

In this case we showed three alternative options for the site (image 2) that proposed a mixture of apartments, and apartments mixed with houses. The idea being that they were all acceptable options for our client but that the planning officer would give a steer to their preference. We submitted the document and then met with the planning officer. We had worked with this planning officer on other projects so we knew he had a keen interest in contemporary architecture, so we showed plenty of examples of designs and details that were similar to what we were proposing. By the end of the meeting, we had their support subject to some minor tweaks for option A. With everything being positive and straightforward so far, we commenced to the next stage: the planning submission.

Planning submissions these days are extremely detailed (image 3). There are a lot of additional documents and mandatory checklists that need to be completed. Therefore it is important that the architect, or planning consultant, coordinates the various parties and ensures a succinct submission.

For this project we had a planning consultant, an arboricultural consultant, a 3D visualiser, and a sustainability consultant. We submitted a full plans submission for nine residential units - this application fell under the minor application category so it had a statutory determination period of eight weeks.

The first 21 days is the period where consultees are invited to comment on what we have submitted; they will include parties such as the departments at the council including highways, tree officer, housing department and policy team, as well as the local neighbours. During the first 21 days, we tend to leave the planning officer alone as they are waiting for the comments to come in. Three to four weeks in, we will start liaising with them to see if they require any amendments, need any clarifications or have any questions.

Towards the latter couple of weeks of the determination period, the officer will be producing their final report and making their recommendation for whether it will be approved or refused. We had made a couple of minor tweaks to satisfy the planning officer and he verbally confirmed that he would be recommending it to be approved, which was great news.

However a week later he informed us that he had been overruled by his line manager and that unless we made major changes, it would be refused. What followed was one of the most bizarre planning situations we had ever been involved in!

The planning officer that we had been working with refused to follow the line managers guidance as he fundamentally disagreed with them, so we then ended up with the line manager running the application.

We met with them and discussed what changes they required, however they were so wide of the mark that we simply couldn’t accept them. We pointed out that we had presented three options at the pre-app and that option A had been accepted (image 2). However the line manager was adamant that the pre-app was just initial advice and therefore not binding - essentially making a mockery of the whole process.

The planning consultant quite rightly recommended that we were not to make the major changes and to let them refuse the application as it was. Their view was that the design was appropriate for the location and that it followed the national planning guidance correctly - therefore we should appeal the decision.

Which is exactly what we did! We worked with the planning consultant to submit a written representation appeal. A drawback of the appeal process is the time it takes to get a decision, sometimes up to six months.

During the waiting period we were instructed by the client to prepare a revised scheme that could possibly address the line managers concerns. However this resulted in a much reduced scheme.

The day came when the inspector visited the site, which normally means you receive a decision within two-three weeks. Amazingly we had a decision two days later, we had won the appeal. We were happy, the client was happy, and the original planning officer was also happy. It was fantastic news that we had won, but it was frustrating that the project had been delayed by six months.

Next month we’ll cover the final stages of the process - getting it built! 


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