"Too often in the past, the advice given by way of pre-application advice lacked formality and, far worse, when issued by the case officer may often have been ignored when a more senior officer within the Department issued the Department's decision."

Planning introduces new system for pre-application advice

25 Oct 2013

The Planning Department ("the Department"), on Monday 21st October, issued a press release entitled "Planning Revamps Pre-Application Advice". A link to the full text of the press release is here. Along with the lack of a robust planning appeal system which was independent and based on planning merits, one of the main perceived weaknesses with the local Planning system has been the lack of pre-application advice which could be relied upon and which carried weight within the planning process.

Too often in the past, the advice given by way of pre-application advice lacked formality and, far worse, when issued by the case officer may often have been ignored when a more senior officer within the Department issued the Department's decision.  By that point in time the applicant would have spent a significant amount of time in processing the application and would have incurred considerable expense by way of planning fees and professional fees in the preparation of the application.  This has resulted in very significant frustration and has done nothing to encourage developers to submit planning applications.

The new process which will go live next week introduces a two track system.  Minor applications dealing with small extensions, alterations and similar matters will continue to be dealt with in a relatively informal manner by way of email, letter, telephone or attendance at the Department's South Hill offices. It is in respect of major applications such as for one or more new buildings, changes of use and other more complex developments, that the real changes in the pre-application advice system are apparent.

It is proposed that those seeking pre-application advice in respect of major proposals will submit preliminary plans and meet planning officers to discuss their proposals in more detail.  The Department will then discuss the application with other interested parties such as Transport and Technical Services and the heritage officers. The officers dealing with the application will then review all the information and give an opinion in writing in a pre-application advice statement within four to six weeks. Statements will be comprehensive and the press release states they will cover planning policy, drainage, size, site and design and impact on landscape and neighbours.  The Department has stressed that to get the most out of the new pre-application advice procedure, applicants should provide as much information as possible to the Department.

The intention is clear that the advice given under the new pre-application advice procedure will be far more formal and valuable than has hitherto been the case.  The Department clearly intends that the advice given will be thorough and unambiguous such that the applicant can rely on the advice given as being the Department's definitive view on the scheme at this initial stage.  A fee will be charged for the advice and in light of the robust stance of the Department, one hopes that the advice given will be as clear and valuable as is clearly intended.

As the press release indicates, pre-application advice, however, will have its limitations. It is of course given, by definition, at the very outset of the Planning process and matters will arise during an application process which cannot be foreseen when the pre-application advice is given.  The views of neighbours and other interested parties must be taken into account and will, in appropriate circumstances, constitute material considerations which might well impact on the pre-application advice provided.

Clearly the pre-application advice process will be a new process and there might be some teething problems.  In this regard, it is fortunate that within the next 18 months or so, the planning appeals process itself will have fundamentally altered and many more appeals will be brought on the merits before an independent planning inspector who will deal with appeals.  It is envisaged that the cost of appeals will be more reasonable and that as a result, the inspector will produce a steady flow of decisions which will assist everybody connected with the planning application process and will doubtless, over a period of time, help refine and bolster the pre-application advice process.

In conclusion, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Department's pre-application initiative is the manner in which the Department itself has initiated the process. In a recent letter to the Jersey Evening Post, the Chief Planning Officer, Andrew Scate, stressed that the Department was approachable and the "door was always open" and it does indeed seem that the Department has not just been listening to industry, but has been actively encouraging discussion.  If a new approach is being adopted, such that the construction industry and the Department work closer together seeking solutions and thereby encouraging appropriate development, then it seems that everybody will win, not least the Island's economy, and the Department is indeed to be congratulated.  It will be interesting to see what further initiatives will be brought forward, not least a re-vamped process for obtaining outline planning permission.