Warrington Borough Council to charge for Pre-Planning Application advice


In a very disappointing development, Warrington Borough Council has announced that they are to charge for pre-planning application advice for non-householder proposals.  The fees are to range from £55 for advertisement proposals through to £1000 for ‘significant major developments’, with additional charges for follow up meetings and written advice ranging from £45 to £500.  In some cases applicants may also be subject to further additional costs such as for independent assessment of viability reports.  The only exception to the charges is for charities. 
There is no consultation proposed; the Council have advised that the new protocol will be introduced in August this year with the current system continuing up to that point.
We fear that this proposed change in policy is likely to add significant project time delay and costs associated with obtaining advice in advance of an application: potentially to the point where it no longer becomes practical for many clients to seek advice in advance of submitting planning applications.
It is difficult to see how this policy change really benefits anyone: with additional costs in advance of applications for clients (particularly with the level of detailed information required to accompany a pre-application advice submission), loss of time in the critical path of projects; the loss of a common sense approach to obtain “in-principle” advice by arranging short meetings with a duty officer; potential additional workload for planning officers dealing with additional applications which are submitted without sometimes vital pre-application advice; and general frustration at the further distancing of planning officers from those making applications, making it more difficult to make submissions with the best chance of approval.

The new protocol will require applicants to submit background information and draft proposals together with draft design and access statements / planning justification statements.  The proposal is that planning officers will normally send a written response to any pre-application enquiry within 35 days of receipt.  If a meeting is requested the suggestion is that this will then follow the written advice and will be set within 21 days of the request.  Although not stated explicitly, the risk is that this two stage process could lead to the additional charges mentioned above being incurred for any meeting, possibly along with a further response period.
The Council also advise that the charges will also apply in respect of requests for written advice following the refusal of planning permission unless ‘proposed changes fundamentally change the development scheme.’
For householder proposals Warrington have advised that ‘as it stands at the moment there is unlikely to be a charge for householder proposals but there will nonetheless be a requirement for enquirers to follow the protocol.’  This involves submitting an enquiry form with the Council endeavouring to ‘provide an in writing response within 28 days of receipt of such forms’; the concern is that this slows the process of domestic applications.  
With this proposal Warrington join a growing number of English local authorities in charging for pre-planning advice.  What is particularly disappointing in this case is that there is no mention of discretion in setting charges, or the non-application of charges to small businesses, that some other local authorities practice, and that the new protocol is to be introduced without consultation.  The proposed protocol potentially adds considerable cost and time delay to development, and could discourage the iterative process which often forms part of a quality design process and successful development. 
It remains to be seen whether this will affect the volume, timing and quality of the development which is so desperately required in the current economic climate.  It will also be interesting to view how this will mesh with the proposed Permitted Development revisions and ‘light touch’ consultation which is due to come into place in England at the end of this month and which will ask specific questions of the Planning system.