Exploring consultation for major projects in Wales: preparation, planning and potential pitfalls

Event speakers: (L-R) Clare Jones, Cllr Michael Michael, and James Clemence

Event speakers: (L-R) Clare Jones, Cllr Michael Michael, and James Clemence

A new policy regime is upon us in Wales, and as of the 1st August 2016, all applications for ‘major’ projects will need to be accompanied by a Pre-application Consultation (PAC) Report, demonstrating the required consultation (as set out in the Act) has been completed.

The aim of the regime is to help speed up the decision making process by front-loading the planning process.

But for many the threshold for ‘major’ development came as a surprise (residential development over 10 units and commercial development over 1000sqm), meaning developments historically seen as relatively small scale (that would have been quietly submitted to the Council) will have a higher profile with local neighbours, community representatives and potentially the media at an earlier stage in the process.

Pre-application consultation is not a new phenomenon and the requirements for consultation set out in the Act are relatively low key.  However, the fact the PAC is now a material consideration in terms of the validation and determination of major planning applications, is clearly causing some nervousness within the local development community.

In order to explore the new policy requirements and potential implications in more detail, grasshopper PR hosted an event with Women in Property and guest speakers from Cardiff City Council - Cllr Michael Michael (Planning Committee Chair) and James Clemence (Head of Planning).

One of the key issues that was discussed was the increased potential for legal challenge should opponents be able to demonstrate the community consultation process has not been carried out to the letter. 

Head of Planning James Clemence said: “Undertaking a robust consultation process will be essential, as our experience shows that objectors can look for opportunities to undermine the process through legal challenge, particularly in the case of higher profile projects.

“This amplifies the need to ensure a belt-and-braces approach to planning, implementing and, most importantly, documenting all consultation activity to ensure that any challenges can be robustly defended.

“Moreover, effective consultation can help improve a scheme, and coupled with early pre application dialogue with the Planning Service, can hopefully speed up the determination of the application once formally submitted.”  

From a local member’s perspective, Chair of Planning Cllr Michael Michael highlighted the importance of engaging with local representatives in relation to planning issues in order to get a stronger understanding of the local context and potential issues. 

Cllr Michael explained: “Understanding the local context and history of the ward is key when it comes to engaging around new developments. Dialogue with local ward members and understanding their priorities is always invaluable, particularly as moving forward they will be able to give their views on financial priorities for their wards, which although not set in stone, will help inform officers when negotiations are had further down the line on Section 106 agreements.”

Talking about the risk of the potential profile inflation of previously low-key projects, Clare Jones from grasshopper PR explained:  “It will no longer be possible to take a head below the parapet approach and plead ignorance of local concerns until after the application has been submitted. Project managers will need to assess the likely communications and consultation risks associated with each project and prepare accordingly, particularly for projects likely to cause high levels of local concern or controversy.  The key will be to ensure an effective communications and consultation strategy is put in place at an early stage.”

Below is a summary of the rest of the key issues, concerns and comments that came out of the event in relation to the new regime.

Detail of consultation materials: the policy requires that the developer provides ‘all information that would be required to be submitted as part of a formal planning application’ for the statutory consultation process.  This has the potential to be problematic in terms of aggravating consultees as the statutory consultation required is effectively on a final set of plans, with little scope for change.  It is also possible that the consultation will throw up unforeseen issues at an advanced stage in the preparation of the planning application, resulting in potentially costly and time consuming changes.  In the case of larger, more complex schemes, a phased consultation process could be advantageous - with an informal stage of consultation on initial plans followed by statutory consultation on final/preferred proposals. 

Pre-application advice: moving forward, consultation should be considered an issue for pre-application dialogue with officers.  A transparent and organised approach enabling officers and local ward members to review your consultation plan early in the process will help iron out any omissions or issues and build buy-in to your approach.

Devil is in the detail: although the overall requirements for consultation are relatively straightforward (consult for 28 days, put up a site notice etc), there are lots of small details set out in the guidance that need to be carefully followed to ensure your consultation does not hold up the validation of your planning application and is not open to challenge later on – for example, when, where and how you make your consultation material available for consultation.

Responding to issues raised: There is very little guidance on how the developer is required to respond to issues raised apart from ensuring all issues are ‘considered’.  However, we know from experience that a significant proportion of the comments received will not be able to influence the final proposed scheme, in which case it is crucial to properly evidence the response for issues raised (for the benefit of both consultees and decision makers) – this could be as simple as a cross reference to the relevant section in the planning application documentation.

There are many other issues that are currently unanswered, such as:

· Will there be a need to re-consult should significant material changes be made to plans following the pre-application consultation?

· Will specialist consultees respond in a timely manner to pre-application consultation?

· How will consultees respond to being consulted on a similar set of materials immediately before (by the developer) and then after the planning application has been submitted (by the Local Authority)? Will this lead to confusion and consultation fatigue?

There are bound to be teething problems as applications begin to be submitted under the new policy regime.  However, as long as a considered, collaborative and planned approach is taken to implementing your pre-application consultation, this should ensure the delivery of a robust PAC.  In addition, if your communications strategy is designed effectively, the consultation process can help remove local issues and often build community buy-in for your scheme.

If you would like to discuss the new pre-application consultation requirements for major projects then please get in touch: call Clare on 07793 382021 or email clare@grasshopperpr.co.uk.