Planning consultant Ken Dijksman shares his insider knowledge and explains what services you can expect to receive if you bring one onboard.
You might want to build a single-storey extension, convert your garage into a granny annexe, entirely remodel your house, or create a new home from scratch. Whatever you want to do, most of these projects depend upon planning permission.
So when should you pay a planning professional to give you advice? It’s a tricky question to answer because there will be many situations when what you propose will be granted permission without a hitch and a planning consultant may seem unnecessary. The problem is that without an understanding of the system it is tough for you to be sure when help will be needed.
Planning consultants are rarely cheap; I’ll consider the likely costs later, but it does mean that small-scale domestic extensions that are being built to a very tight budget may not justify seeking specialist advice unless or until they hit a problem. In other words, it might be cheaper to risk relying upon the help of a builder or architect. I say risk because regardless of their depth of knowledge and practical experience, architects and builders often know as much about planning as planners know about designing and building houses.
Let’s assume that your project involves a significant personal financial investment and that the outcome is important, even potentially life-changing. If you find yourself seeking planning advice for such a project from non-planning professionals, such as builders or architects, you may wish to take a step back and contemplate seeking the opinion of a planning consultant.
Understanding the system is not just about interpreting the local planning policies for an area. It also requires an understanding of planning law and the latest changes in government regulations and advice. A planning consultant shouldn’t be an individual who rides to the rescue once you’ve wasted massive amounts of time and money. They should ideally help you avoid delays and problems in the design of your scheme from the outset. And there are instances where a planning consultant is likely to be essential — for example, if you own a greenfield site that you wish to promote for allocation for residential development through the local or neighbourhood plan. The earlier you involve a planning consultant, the more benefit you can derive from them.
That said, you can still bring one onboard at any time. If your submission gets refused, you can seek the advice of a planning consultant at this stage to help you decide whether to appeal or to redesign the scheme and resubmit.
At the most basic level, vast numbers of small-scale domestic developments do not need planning permission, while minor tweaks to a design can make the difference between a scheme falling under Permitted Development (PD) and a scheme that comes up against endless planning problems. A planning consultant can tell you what you can do without permission, and how to combine planning permission with the use of your PD rights.
It’s important to be neighbourly in terms of your design and to think about local politics, but a planning consultant should know when you can stand your ground and argue your case based on strong planning precedent. In other words, avoiding problems doesn’t necessarily mean capitulating to neighbours or planning officers; sometimes it’s necessary to have someone to argue your case.
Would have extensive background knowledge of recent appeal decisions that may be relevant to your proposal. With this information, a planning consultant can face the local planning authority with confidence, with an understanding of how the council has fared in recent appeals, especially concerning the interpretation of relevant domestic planning policies. This is an area where non-planning professionals, such as builders and architects, may not be up to date or understand the implications of recent decisions.
I have encountered clients who have previously received a planning refusal and have submitted an appeal without professional advice, and they have, as a result, blighted their property. Once a request has been lost, and an Appeal Inspector has made damning comments about a scheme, it can be tough to recover that lost ground in terms of the development potential of a site. A planning consultant cannot guarantee to win an appeal, but they can estimate the odds of success, and present an informed professional case, or perhaps advise you that it’s not an argument you can win. And this is important because without professional advice you may be pursuing a lost cause and needlessly wasting time, money and effort that could be better spent elsewhere. I would very strongly advise against lodging a planning appeal without the necessary professional planning advice.
WHAT SERVICES CAN A PLANNING CONSULTANT OFFER YOU?
The services available from planning consultants range from initial consultation and written advice to act as your planning agent. As your agent, they apply and represent you throughout the process. A planning consultant will often assist in instructing the relevant architect or designer in terms of the form of the scheme and provide advice regarding the overall planning strategy and the tactics necessary to achieve permission.
If you have instructed a consultant to act as your agent, they will then be a point of contact with the planning authority, and it can be useful to have such an independent planning professional standing between you and the council decision-makers.
As the applicant, you will be highly emotionally and financially invested in your proposal, and the architects may also feel quite strongly about the designs that they have produced. A planning consultant can identify common ground and to seek opportunities for negotiation and sometimes compromise. Constructive dialogue can be more difficult to achieve without the use of an agent who speaks the same language as the planning officers.
WHERE TO FIND A GOOD CONSULTANT
As is often the case, asking family and friends locally if they know an excellent planning consultant is usually a prudent starting point. And your architect or builder might thoroughly recommend someone, too. You can search for the Royal Town
“A planning consultant cannot guarantee to win an appeal, but they can estimate the odds of success, and present an informed case.”
Planning consultants can only advertise themselves as a Chartered Town Planner if they are a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute. As such, they will have professional indemnity insurance and must operate within reasonably clearly defined parameters, which is a good thing. For example, you should have a written fee agreement from a planning consultant based on a clearly understood budget. In other words, before you formally instruct a consultant, you should know what you’re getting and how much it will cost. Planning consultancy services are offered by a wide range of practices, ranging from large multinational, multidisciplinary organisations that employ thousands to independent partnerships or sole traders.
AND THE COSTS?
Fees range from around £100 to £300 per hour, although the equivalent day rates are more likely given the time involved. You may be able to agree a fixed fee to deal with a job, with or without expenses, or to agree an hourly or day rate with an upper limit. It is sometimes possible to accept a bonus-based fee which includes an element of uplift depending upon the success of a proposal.
To conclude, bear in mind that you cannot rely on council planners as a substitute for a planning consultant — it is not their job to give you independent advice.
My advice is that if your scheme involves a significant financial investment, you ought, at the very least, to purchase one or two hours of initial planning advice from a consultant to identify potential problems and opportunities arising from what you intend to do. A good planning consultant is, at worst, an insurance policy against planning problems; a cost that you would rather avoid and that you hope will prove unnecessary, rather like health insurance on holiday. If things do go wrong, they will fight your corner.
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