When is early community engagement required for larger developments?

In mid-sized or larger schemes, there is often a question as to when and what level of engagement should be incorporated prior to submitting a planning application. There are a range of requirements indicated in planning law, but it often comes down to the applicant’s discretion to judge what kind of engagement to try.

As the planning system has developed in recent years, a greater emphasis is being put on the role of engagement with key stakeholders to ensure the new proposals have a good chance to ‘blend’ in to their surroundings in a productive way. For example, the draft text for the new National Planning Policy Framework (for England) states: “Early engagement has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system for all parties. Good quality pre-application discussion enables better coordination between public and private resources and improved outcomes for the community.” The favour towards early engagement is even stronger in other parts of the UK.

Requirements for applicants

The statutory requirement for pre-planning engagement is contained within several Acts of Parliament and is applicable to a wide range of developments. Here’s a quick summary of the varying requirements for community engagement and statutory consultation in the UK, which differ between England, Scotland, and Wales.

In England, pre-application consultations are an essential part of the Planning Act 2008 and were further strengthened with the Localism Act (2011). With the introduction of the Localism Act , developers are now required to consult local communities before submitting applications for both residential and non-residential developments, allowing stakeholders the opportunity to influence proposals at an early stage. Importantly, developers must demonstrate how they have taken account of the community’s responses within their application.

However, only major applications in England are affected. Specifically, this includes residential developments of more than 200 homes or where the site area is 4 ha or more; and any non-residential developments with new floorspace of 10,000 sqm or more, or with a site area of 2 ha or more.

Both full and outline applications are subject to this requirement. Householder applications or those for listed buildings and conservation areas are not affected. Neither are LDC applications, prior notification applications or section 73 applications (that present variation on an earlier planning application).

The Localism Act also requires pre-application consultations for wind farm developments with plans to install more than two turbines, or where the turbine hub height is greater than 15 metres.

For nationally-significant infrastructure projects, developers are required to conduct pre-application consultations not just with the local community, but with statutory consultees, local authorities, landowners and all significantly affected persons. Just as with the Localism Act, the developers should demonstrate how they have taken account of the responses generated by their consultation.

For developments in Wales, much smaller applications require a consultation. The Planning (Wales) Act 2015 requires pre-planning consultations for all developments with more than 10 dwellings or sites larger than 0.5ha, or where floor space exceeds 1,000 sqm.

In Scotland, consultations are required for slightly larger developments than in Wales. The Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006 sets out a framework whereby all schemes with more than 50 units or more than 2 ha require pre-planning consultation or where the floor space exceeds 10,000 sqm.

Local guidance in Statements of Community Involvement

In most cases, applicants should also speak to the development control officer at the local authority for advice on local ‘appetite’ for engagement and any relevant prior local knowledge. Increasingly, English local authorities also produce a detailed statement of community involvement (SCI) that explains how they themselves involve the public in planning decisions. These documents offer helpful guidelines regarding what applicants are expected to do. SCIs were introduced with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and increasingly outline the forms of community involvement encouraged with the public in greater detail.

Some key themes to pay attention to include a preference towards early engagement that facilitates novel, sometimes digital engagement methods on behalf of the applicant. For large projects especially, the objective is for communities to be provided with an opportunity to influence designs at an early stage.

If the project stays below the size and scale outlined previously, it is largely within the remit of the applicant to decide when to do any pre-application engagement and at what level. Increasingly, however, local authorities have suggested that applicants with large, complex, or potentially controversial projects try more open ended engagement methods. For example, Lancaster City Council’s draft Statement for Community Involvement mentions ‘planning for real’ workshops for larger schemes. ‘Planning for real’ facilitates a collaborative model making and mapping exercise to better understand issues surrounding the site – that the applicant may not yet be aware of – through the eyes of other stakeholders. Those insights can then be accommodated in the designs early on and help the architect or site engineer to complete designs or layouts for the scheme.

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