Why can’t I get hold of 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, 11am until 3pm, 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 make 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: