'It's time to rethink the pre-application process in planning'

Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum ask about the fairness of pre-apps

Pre-applications can give an indication of whether building plans might be accepted - Credit: PA

If you want to make an alteration to your house but you’re not sure whether it would be approved, you can obtain advice from the local authority through a pre-application ("pre-app") process. Without submitting formal plans, you can get an indication of whether they might be accepted, and what you could do to increase the chances.

This is a sensible and useful arrangement. But it lacks clarity and transparency. It risks developments having at least the appearance of being done deals before neighbours and the wider community have the opportunity to comment.

If they work properly, pre-apps should save money and time for both homeowners and taxpayer-funded planning officers. Designs can be tailored before submission so as to comply with planning policies, avoiding costly disputes. Pre-apps are a paid-for service, putting an obligation on the authority to provide timely and useful advice. (Details of fees, which run into many thousands of pounds for large developments, are on the Camden, Haringey and Barnet websites).

Alexander Nicoll

Alexander Nicol wants the 'pre-app' to be fair and open - Credit: A Nicoll

But there are at least two significant dangers. Firstly, the system carries uncertainty. There is no formal undertaking from either side until a planning application is actually made and assessed. The plan might change after the pre-app. Or a planning officer might take a different view from the pre-app advice. The process can become drawn-out and costly, leading some to wonder if it might have been better just to put in an application and amend it later if necessary.

Secondly, the process lacks transparency. The pre-app often remains confidential, so that neighbours may feel a developer has reached agreement with the authority before they are given a say. In addition, pre-app consultation with neighbours often seems a box-ticking exercise, with no notice taken of their views.

The Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum has seen recent examples of these risks as we examine and selectively comment on planning applications in our designated area, which includes most of Hampstead Town ward. It’s time to discuss how to ensure the system is fair, open and efficient for all interested parties.

Alexander Nicoll is vice chair of the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum hampsteadforum.org