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At home with Paul & Alan: Highlights from our chat with Susan Crowley

We invited Susan to join us for a Q&A because planning is such a big part of what we do

It’s also one of the aspects of the process that worries clients the most, so we wanted to chat with Susan who has a solid understanding of planning law, policy, and procedure.

We’ve worked with Susan for nearly ten years on projects at various scales. Her advice has been instrumental in a number of our planning wins. She’s not afraid to tell us where a scheme has little merit but will also push us where she thinks we can do more.

The Q&A

Pre-application engagement: How do local authorities tend to work?

Pre-app is an important part of the planning process. Issues are discussed and resolved before submitting a full application. However, Susan discussed how this differs between different local authorities. Some request a meeting, some refuse to engage apart from in writing. Some won’t offer anything in writing and we never know how long the response will be.

“We’re now in a situation where most local authorities assign a fee to a pre-application procedure,” explains Susan.  “In addition to which there’s still no formalised process.”

Susan proposes for all of her clients that they engage with the pre-application process. Why?

“If you don’t engage with the pre-application process, local authorities now have the right to reject your application without engaging with you at all.”

How should we treat a pre-application?

Susan advises it’s on a case-by-case basis. When working on a proposal, she tends to give the local authority 15 working days to respond. If there’s no contact within that time frame, she will then write to the local authority confirming that she’ll be going ahead with submitting a formal planning application. That’s been an effective tool.

However, if you’ve got a tricky site, the decision to withdraw the pre-application submission is trickier. For example, at the practice, we’re currently working on a pre-application for a project in Holmfirth, and that has been in for pre-application for over four months.

“The planning authority has engaged with us,” begins Susan.

“But the reason we’ve kept that one in is that it’s such a tricky site. I needed to understand what they were going to say, so I could then plan how we dealt with the next phase.” We’re happy to report that the future looks bright for this project. The local authority seems very happy with the design, which is in the Green Belt. “They’re supportive of the principle and they’re inviting the planning application,” adds Susan. “So in this instance, the pre-app has been very useful but it’s always case-by-case.”

A smaller project can be more challenging

In our experience, we have found smaller, residential projects such as an extension receive more scrutiny from a planning officer than larger developments. Susan agrees “It’s almost like, the smaller it is, the more they can drill down into the detail because they understand it better.”

The benefits of having a planning consultant

There are misconceptions around what a planning consultant does. We often notice a reluctance by clients to engage with a planning consultant because they’re unsure why we, the architects, can’t manage it ourselves.

“You (architects) should be able to deal with the scale of development you design without needing a planning consultant,” says Susan. “Unfortunately the (planning) system is designed to trip you up. It’s so complex, you need a planning consultant to navigate through it.”

When should you work with a planning consultant?

“If you’re going to need a planning consultant, bring us in right at the get-go. You then have a planning framework that you can trust. So that when you’re in the position to submit a planning application you don’t actually need a planning consultant because you’ve dealt with  the issues and answered all the questions that the planners would raise.”

From a value perspective, it’s far more effective to go to a planning authority armed with the support and knowledge a planning consultant has given you. Susan agrees; “Rather than asking the planning authority what you should do, you’re going to them and telling them what you’re going to do and justify why.”

We can vouch for this, particularly in the case of our Hen House project, which Susan consulted on. “I was brought on to look at a particular bit of land for the new house. By the end of my first visit with the clients, I had already said that they should build the house somewhere else, on another bit of the land, because it would be far less problematic from a planning perspective.” That bit of land was on a vertical slope, but after reviewing it, Paul knew it could work and would be a brilliant challenge design-wise.

Residential design guides are outdated

During the discussion, we discussed the fact that most residential design guides from planning authorities are (at least) 20 years out of date. “They’re out of date, not just in the context of our planning policy framework,” begins Susan “but also in the context of our permitted development rights.”

Is there a difference between guidance and policy?

An attendee raised the question, and it’s something we’re often asked about and there are lots of layers.

  • The National Planning Policy Framework outlines what the planning system does.
  • Local Planning Policy is specific to that local area.
  • Development Plan Documents (known as Supplementary Planning Guidance / Documents) provide more detailed advice to what’s in the local planning policy document.

A lot of the guidance we (Paul Testa Architecture) refer to is from Development Plan Documents. It amplifies the more strategic guidance within the local planning policy.

When is the right time to go ahead or walk away from a planning application?

This is a tricky position to find yourself in, and many people do. When consulting on an application, Susan always weighs up the probability of success. “Sometimes, I have to go back to the client and ask ‘how invested are you in getting what you want from this?’.”

Ultimately, it’s a gamble. “I can make a case, just like a lawyer can for their client,” adds Susan “but our appeal process is broken at the moment.”

However, Susan is hopeful that the tide will turn for the planning process. “We should see things shifting again in favour of development, not the other way round.”

Paul adds that you can often determine a lot from the local planning authority; “either that gives you guidance about how best to approach the next level, or that we’re going to struggle to justify against those pieces of policy or the position the local authority is taking. It allows you to take stock.”

“Pre-app is an opportunity to take stock, especially with a risky site”

Plan to go to appeal whether you end up there or not

This is a key bit of advice from Susan. She’ll plan and be ready to go to appeal, whether that happens or not. “I don’t look to the local authority for the right decision; I always look to the appeal system.”

Invest in reports and do your homework

“The most frustrating planning applications are where the client has saved money upfront by either not getting certain reports or investigations done – or getting a lesser version done – to minimise cost risk,” explains Paul. “This means that we’re on the back-foot in the application process and we can’t be as robust in our response to any issues raised by the local authority.”

Communication with the planning authority is critical

The National Planning Policy Framework makes it very clear that focussing on specific design details isn’t something a local authority should do. However, that’s not always the case and it’s something we challenge them on.  “There was a project recently where the planning officer wanted the design to use zinc cladding,” says Alan. “It was the wrong thing for the project, and after questioning them, we got the timber that we wanted to be approved.”

It becomes easier once a planning authority trusts you

Having worked with a variety of architecture practices, Susan has noticed that the planning application process is easier if the planning authority knows the team involved. “Once a local authority gets to know a practice, whether they’re planning or architecture, and trusts them that means a lot. Once they know you do it properly, it’s much easier to go back and challenge them.”

Thank you to everyone that attended. We had some interesting (and challenging!) questions.

If you have a planning-related question please contact us

To find out more about Susan and Crowley Associates visit