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The Process of Architecture Part II

06.06.17

In Part I of the series 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!

Making a Planning Application

We 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 casually thrown in a planning application and then been surprised when it did not gain consent. It is essential to be much more strategic and engage the planning department and key stakeholders 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, height, etc.

Image-1-the-pre-app

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, initial thoughts on design (see right image).

In this case we showed three alternative options for the site that proposed a mixture of just 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 the 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, and this was confirmed later in an email.

With everything being positive and straightforward so far, we commenced the next stage: the planning submission.

Planning submission these days are extremely detailed (see image below). 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 coordinate the various parties and ensure a succinct submission.

Image-3-the-planning-submission

For this project we had a planning consultant, an arboricultural consultant, a 3D visualiser, and a sustainability consultant, and we submitted a full plans submission for 9 residential units. This application fell under the minor application category so it had a statutory determination period of 8 weeks.

Planning Decision & Appeal

The planning application was submitted and started off very smoothly as we had followed the planning officers initial advice. 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 - highways, tree officer, housing department, policy team etc as well as the local neighbours. During the 21 days we tend to leave the planning officer alone as they are just waiting for the comments to come in. Three to four weeks in we will start liaising with them on a regular basis to see if they want any amendments, need any clarifications or questions answered.

Towards the later 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 the satisfy the planning officer and he had verbally confirmed that he would be recommending it would be approved - 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 rendering the whole process obsolete.

Image 2 - the sketched option

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 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 - up to 6 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.

Eventually the inspector visited the site, which normally means you receive a decision within 2 - 3 weeks. Amazingly we had a decision two days later - we had won the appeal. We were happy, the client was happy, and when we told the original planning officer he was also happy!

It was fantastic news that we had won but frustrating that the project had been delayed by 6 months.

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

Written by Andy Parsons, originally published in Platinum Magazine