In our previous blog “Planning: creaking at the seams” we discussed about the strain that many Local Planning Authorities are finding themselves in, and we thought we would talk about one of our projects that is currently going through the planning system, where these issues arose and how we have managed to turn around what seemed to be a a dead end, with the help of some proactive people within the planning system, to create something quite positive.
So, a little background, our clients wished to replace and relocate an existing outdoor pool with a new enclosed pool. The site is in the green belt, on a steep gradient, and set next to woodlands. We proposed a covered new pool recessed into the gradient of the hill in a location away from the root protection areas and set down so that it was hidden in its surroundings both by the trees and the gradient. There green belt provides a guidance as to the amount of additional volume that the existing building (as of 1948) can be extended, we were within this limit.
Once the scheme had been developed, we submitted the proposals to the LPA for their Pre-Application Planning Advice (PAPA). The advice provided was mostly thorough, although, as always, some areas left to interpretation. The principal areas where the LPA wished further clarity was regarding the approach to ecology and arboriculture, for both we gained advice from experienced consultants we regularly work with, who put together reports and methodology as to how the scheme would work in harmony with its surroundings.
Having addressed the concerns raised in the PAPA, we submitted a planning application and throughout the application processed endeavoured to address any issues raised, but there were none raised by the LPA. On the decision day we wrote to the LPA and requested confirmation that as we had no issues raised by the LPA we presumed we would be receiving an approval later that day. Around mid-day we received correspondence from the LPA, indicating that they would not be supporting our scheme and would be refusing the application. We are given three hours to make a decision as to whether we wished to rescind the application or have it refused. It was not possible within this time frame to have a discussion with the client, we requested an extension of time, but this was ignored, and a refusal was issued, the first planning refusal we have had in over a decade, to say we are frustrated is an understatement.
Our first action was to review the reasons for the refusal, as highlighted in the decision statement, and then a decision can be made as to the next steps, in this case either an appeal or to adjust the design and re submit, the problem with the second option is that the reasons for refusal are so vague that it was not possible ascertain what changes to the proposals would actually satisfy the LPA, so it seemed that an appeal was the only option. We have always considered an appeal the last resort and up to now have never needed to use this facility, it is lengthy, costly, and time consuming.
As we dug deeper into the reasons given for refusal, it was apparent that the response was at odds with the initial Pre Application Planning Advice given and, we believed our supporting documentation covered the reasons for refusal and that the council had not agreed with this expert advice, therefore their reasoning was down to a matter of opinion, this is something we would be able to provide a good argument for to support our proposals should we end up going to appeal.
As part of our review, we also looked whether these had been any issues with the service provided by the Local PLanning Authority, it was obvious that the authority was creaking at the seams, with little funding, and difficulties in staff retention, indeed the case officer for the application was soon to leave.
Once we had prepared a draft Expert Opinion supporting our proposals, rather than going directly to appeal and in the spirit of corporation we approached the LPA with our draft response and gave them the opportunity to engage with us again to see if we could work together to come up with a way ahead that all parties could support.
This is when we started to really develop a proactive and positive relationship with their planning team, who were able to open up about the difficulties they are currently facing with the financial cutbacks. Through a series of honest and frank discussions about the application, we were able to propose some minor adjustment to the scheme, included developing a methodology of maintenance for the woodland, which in the end provided a more robust and sustainable proposal, the LPA were able confirm they would support the scheme should a further application be submitted, saving both time and the financial burden that this often the case with an appeal.
There are a lot of ways that you can look at this, perhaps if the initial PAPA response had been more robust, we wouldn’t have had to go down this route, but we also need to understand the local Authorities are under such strain, sometimes things like this are going to happen, and when they do, if you can find the right people with the right mentality, you can work together to achieve a really positive results, and you don't need a sledgehammer to crack the nut.