Why is it so Hard to Reach a Planning Officer?

These days, that’s a complaint that’s increasingly common. There was a time, in many parts of the country when you could stroll into your local planning office, ask at reception and be sitting down with a helpful planning officer within a couple of minutes.

But times have changed. The pressures on planning departments and planning staff have become acute. Posts have been cut in many parts of the country and – despite the recession – the workload may not have shrunk to match.
In fact, the increasing complexity of the process has often made life more difficult for both applicants and planning officers. Sometimes, ironically, attempts to simplify the system have merely made it harder to understand. In England, for example, the government’s new regulations are meant to encourage economic development by allowing people to build bigger extensions, but the mechanism involves a procedure that’s very similar to a conventional planning application, involving the submission of details, drawings and a site plan, accompanied by a duty on the Council to notify neighbours. Given that super-sized extensions may well provoke more neighbour objections, the outcome of this ‘simplification’ is a process that may not, overall, make any tangible difference. In the face of financial pressures, stricter time management has become a necessity in the average planning office. That has meant that many departments have introduced limits on the times when planning officers are available to meet the public. Some may restrict access to, say, 11 am until 3 pm, but will guarantee that a duty officer will be available during that period. Others have an appointments system, so you cannot simply turn up and hope to see someone.

There’s been another change, too. Whereas planning advice used to be free everywhere, some hard-pressed councils are now charging fees for the advice they provide. One London council, for example, charges between £370 and £475 to provide the simplest level of advice about a home extension, and if you want them to visit the site for a discussion the cost can rise to between £440 and £800. Bear in mind, too, that whatever advice is given won’t bind the planning authority when it comes to making a decision on your proposal.

So, how best to chart a course through this? There are some ways in which you can ease the strain:

  1. Be as well-prepared as you can in advance of any meeting. Think your proposal through and make sure that you’ve covered every angle. Try to see the proposal from the point of view of your neighbours (it’s important to talk to them), the traffic engineers or the local amenity society and anticipate their concerns. That way, the time you have with the planning officer will be more productive, possibly eliminating the need for any further meetings;
  2. Ensure that the plans you produce for meetings are adequate; good location plans and block or site plans can make all the difference; the planning officer will feel more confident about your approach if you’ve got these things right;
  3. Check out the planning department’s website. They usually have really useful information about the whole planning process and clear advice about how to approach the department.
  4. Consider getting professional help. Yes, employing an architect or a planning consultant may look expensive, but the time and frustration saved can make it well worth it. This certainly applies in the case of larger projects, but it can also be true of smaller jobs such as extensions or new driveways because professionals do know their way around the system and really can smooth the path.

This may seem like a lot of work and expense, but if your project needs permission, you need to do the groundwork. Planning officers are, by and large, helpful. Their job is to work on behalf of all of us to manage development in the best interests of the community. They often have ideas or insights that can be really helpful in developing your project. So, it does help to adopt a friendly approach, work with them and listen to their advice. It may be harder to make contact than it once was, but it’s worth persevering.