Pre-application Consultation: Proposed Changes
The acronym PAC has a number of meanings – but none more exciting than Pre-Application Consultation. PAC is a statutory requirement, which must be undertaken before any major or national planning application is submitted. PAC aims to improve the planning system by strengthening the involvement of communities at an early stage. It can also improve the quality of applications and help to address misunderstandings and deal with community concerns.
But concerns to date surround the very purpose of PAC and the process itself. Suggestions made are that it is simply a ‘tick the box exercise’ and that applicants are sometimes perceived to have no intention of changing their plans in response to the feedback received as part of PAC.
The aim of the consultation paper on ‘Proposed Changes to Pre-application Consultation Requirements in Planning’ issued in August, is to address concerns about a lack of feedback to local communities engaging in PAC and make the process more consistent and transparent.
The draft Regs propose that information on a proposal should be available in hard copy and online. As part of the COVID-19 emergency arrangements, the use of online tools to share development information was introduced as an option and we have seen web-based engagement, survey monkey questionnaires and social media alerts used by applicants during the pandemic. This more digitally focused approach could be useful because it does not require going to a particular place at a particular time, providing much more flexibility to engage as and when individuals are able to.
There is also a proposed requirement for an additional public event. The proposal here is that the second event is a ‘physical event’ occurring later in the PAC process (at least seven days after the first event) that provides feedback to the public on the views received during the earlier stages of PAC. It is fair to say that sometimes, often for good reason, little or no changes to a proposed development are made in response to feedback received during the consultation period. Attendees may be disappointed that their suggestions haven’t been taken into account, but there may be economic viability, design or development reasons for a developer not to change a scheme. But equally, when embarking on the statutory PAC process, developers must have a reasonable willingness to amend initial plans where feasible, following meaningful, proportionate engagement. There are naturally costs involved in the logistics and documentation required for an additional public event and these costs can often run into thousands of pounds.
If the concern is in providing feedback, regardless of whether or not changes are made to a scheme as a result of PAC, are there more cost-effective means of doing so? Online engagement tools and platforms provide a quick and low-cost means to gather feedback on proposals, so is a second ‘physical event’ therefore necessary? There are also issues around inclusivity and reaching a broader demographic within the community, particularly as we move towards a more digitally focussed planning system. Could digital or remote PAC consultation eventually replace face-to-face interaction? Should these online systems be “pull” (feedback requested by the user) or “push” (feedback automatically pushed out to the user, regardless of whether they actually want it)?
The draft Regs also propose to standardise the content of PAC reports as there is huge variance in the scope and format of PAC submissions. Having a statutory scope of requirements will help to ensure that the engagement is not just a ‘tick box’ exercise as evidence will be required to substantiate the PAC.
There will also be exemptions from undertaking PAC for applications in certain circumstances, for example with repeat or second applications. The consultation paper suggests that the existing rule for second applications under the Fees Regs could be applied to these draft Regs allowing for some changes to be made if the development proposal is basically the same. Another notable change is the intention to impose an 18-month time limit for submitting an application after a Proposal of Application Notice (PAN) and transitional arrangements proposed for those applicants who have already started the PAC process.
Whilst supporting the need for better engagement in the planning system though improved PAC, we need to be careful that we are not simply adding in additional (and costly) requirements for applicants and increasing the risk of consultation fatigue for all parties.
The consultation closes on 6th November 2020.