Where the money goes

Land area          2 hectares

Location East Anglia

Application       outline plus density, access, location (general sustainability)

Finding the balance: to spend or not to spend

We run a tight ship. However there is little we can do to reduce our essential costs.

We never forget that a professional expert is instructed by us on the same basis as if he/she was about to give expert evidence in a court of law. Specifically they will provide what they believe is a proper professional and truthful judgement, without bias. Accordingly, the extent to which your instructions to your expert to produce a report in your favour, are very limited. Technically, your LPA is in the same position. However, in-house experts tend to be happier to prostitute their qualifications in ways which might stretch your imagination, let alone your credulity. This is an example of a situation where we, as land promoters, have to be prepared to, shall we say, negotiate. He This negotiation is not about money but reputation.

Every local planning authority (“LPA”) has a local development plan, many of which are already 15 years old. The law provides that we must comply with the development plan as our starting point in considering what the LPA may allow us to build.

The Law tends to refer to the “decision-maker”. That can mean either a committee or subcommittee of an LPA or a case officer allocated to take a case and to whom the decision has been delegated, or an inspector appointed by the Minister in the case of an appeal.

In considering whether or not to approve an application, the decision maker must balance the benefits of your proposal against the this benefits and “harm”. Of course, this is an extremely subjective judgement.

In assessing that balance, subjective though it may be, the decision-maker must take account of responses from statutory and other consultees. There is no particular definition or algorithm as to the weight to be given to the response by any particular consultee. County Highways are top dog since we rely on them from basic safety in everyday life.

Joint second come legal requirements by top level government departments, quangos or other organisations. The mission of these is usually conservation – whether it be buildings, habitat, unidentified archaeology, or rare species. The comparative importance of these relates to the degree of harm the development might impose on a particular item.

Many of the possible difficulties which could hit the promoter are absolutely unknown. For example if the RSPB decide that a finch is sufficiently different from its colleagues to justify treating it as a new variety, then it is immediately on the list “at risk” and ornithologists will be looking out for them everywhere – including your site.

Guessing who to instruct to provide a balancing opinion

Of course, we do not know in advance what a consultee will say. For that reason, we have to cover all the most obvious possibilities. That requires that we obtain an expert report in every area where it is likely that the LPA will have a policy we have to comply with.

The LPA is under an NPPF obligation to publish a list of the documents it will require before it will accept our application. This list is divided between only two categories by size. That means, in theory at least, we might have to provide 30 documents, many of which have zero application to 5 houses in a village or a block of four flats in the centre of a small town.

Of course there is some flexibility. Our problems arise when a particular officer just happens to pick up a concern in a way that would seem totally irrational to you and me. However, it would be stupid to ignore what that person says on behalf of the LPA, no matter how irrational or simply wrong. Neither the case officer nor the planning committee are likely to disagree with any assessment by one of their own people.

A similar problem may arise in the local objections. In law, a local objection is valid only if it provides a “planning reason” to object. In other words personal amenity, NIMBY-ism and loss of house value should not be relevant. Sadly however, the government of the day will want to keep local voters happy and will therefore encourage local democracy and participation. That is fine in principle but if the LPA members also want to support their local voters, even the most irrational objections will become gold plated.

The same misunderstandings will be perpetuated by an Inspector on appeal. In law, it is not part of the task of the inspector to reassess the entire case management process. She/he is concerned about the judgement of the case officer or LPA committee only if it appears to be wholly unreasonable. That is a high hurdle.

In summary, it does not matter how crackpot are the opinions or fake the news proposed by the LPA in a policy, or through a simple email message from the case officer, or in an internal or external report. If we want to succeed in our application, we have to find our own expert, preferably of superior seniority, who just happens to have an opinion which supports our case. That means we have no alternative than to rush around at the last minute and commit to whatever money it takes to find the right person.

Data providers and designers

We will start with the data providers. They are mostly engineers. The first we need is mercifully free of objections. He/she surveys your land and draws up a plan with all the data required by architects and other professionals. The fee is rarely overwhelming, but tends to cost more if the topography is rugged.

I will put that in a £3000, hoping it may be somewhat lower.

At the same time we need a surface water drainage report which assesses natural drainage and flood risk. Like much else it has the tag of a requirement to be “sustainable”.

I will put that in at £3,000, again hoping it may be somewhat lower

After the surveyor, we move on to architects and any other design professionals needed in order to assemble the drawings relating to the development proposal. Today, most LPAs also require indicative drawings of house types and hard and soft landscape. Even if they do not, we regard it is good practice to illustrate our proposals for the eyes of non-technical people who may be involved in the assessment process. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The architects proposals may require amendment, sometimes more than once. If we want to be as certain as possible that our proposal will be accepted, then we need to tilt that balance of benefit against “harm” strongly in our favour.

I will put architects and landscape designers in at £20,000.

Advisers on the natural environment

It is rare for us to question an estimate given to us by one of our many professional colleagues. We are well aware of professional rates for different specialisms and they know that we know. If someone is particularly busy then maybe their price comes in a little higher than we might have expected. So do we want to find an alternative provider? No. That would involve a large chunk of our own time, in particular if we include the considerable investment we make in professional relationships.

Occasionally, there are reasons to look for a new specialist. Maybe we need unusual expertise or “super-specialism”. Other reasons may apply.

Example costs for professional reports for work examining our notional site, providing data, reporting and advising, including travel time, photography and attendance on site, are likely to be around:

Ecology £5,000

Arboriculture       £2,000

Landscape         £5,000

The historic environment and archaeology

These are in a category of their own. A specialist will claim that the setting of a grade 1 listed building includes how it may be viewed from any distance. There is no agreed legal limit. Theoretically, this is intended to preserve the distant views of a very special building in a special location such as Salisbury Cathedral or St Paul’s Cathedral. However, if local people in the LPA simply do not want development, then their councillors will have been elected on that platform and their officers will act in support of the members. This is a problem throughout the country. It is most serious in rural areas because local people have more “amenity” to lose by construction on the doorstep.

Nonetheless, if your common sense tells you that either the listed building is of very low value or that it’s setting really cannot extend very far then an expert report may be enough to get you by.

The problem with archaeology – particularly in East Anglia, is that an awful lot of people have lived here over a very long period of time. Modern equipment to identify what is below the ground is developing fast but it is expensive to use and is not sufficiently accurate to avoid a requirement for physical investigation. We can comfortably lose £15,000 on the preliminary investigation and report for our notional site. If artefacts of significant historic value are found then further investigation may be necessary. At that point, we would have a hard decision to make. Do we pay what it takes and hope nothing important is found or do we back off and find a site with a less important history? In this case I will suppose that we put in archaeology at £12,000 and decide to continue.

Next, our heritage report. Before we even meet you, we would have made a preliminary investigation of what listed buildings in the area could be affected by our proposal and, as far as we can, as to the likely level of what the law refers to as “significance”. Let us say the site is 100 m from the edge of the conservation area. Maybe even a grade 2 listed farmhouse can be seen in the distance. That could be enough to kill the application if we allow free rein to the Council’s historic expert. However, the influence of locally listed buildings is far harder to assess. Even buildings that are not even locally listed and can be regarded by the LPA as being sufficiently significant to prevent development. Like all of the areas of this investigation, we need top-quality expertise first, to report, and subsequently to negotiate as far as that may be required.

We will put in £5000 for the heritage report.

Contamination

Land contamination is an interesting one. Contamination can be anything in or on the ground which is not there naturally. Of course, we all agree that we would not wish to live in a new house knowing that the house or the garden around it was contaminated in some way which was unsafe to us. Once again however your LPA may gold plate the requirement. Often, they will also ask for this report, not because they have any evidence of contamination, but in order for you to prove that there is none. We are prepared to refuse a report altogether if it is obviously not required. That is what we have assumed in this notional case. So no money goes out.

Highways

There are two highways issues to sort out. Dealing with the necessary professional research and reporting on the effects on the highway system as a whole might cost £20,000 a throw. I am going to be optimistic here and assume that your site is not going to be large enough to require road widening or traffic lights, so we will do without that report.

That leaves County Highways. Their concern is more local – weight of local traffic, crossovers between the site and the road, vision splays, on site provision for parking and turning – particularly if there is no off-site parking. We certainly need expert help here. No good simply submitting a drawing. Our engineer may need to discuss, have meetings and refresh drawings. We have to get this right.

I will put in the Highways report and negotiation at £6,000.

Planning fees and administration

The Minister is talking about increasing planning fees substantially. I believe this is certain to happen. A 50% increase will result in a fee of around £15,000. No way we can modify that.

Finally, there is our own professional and administrative cost. You will find that larger companies than ours fix the agreement so that they receive back their full employment costs, whatever that takes. That makes for a large, but unknown sum. Their lead could be charged out at £200 an hour with a prime assistant at £120 an hour and a load of hangers-on at lower rates. New problems arise, then clearly that can be a gigantic deduction from your profit, which you did not expect.

We are prepared to calculate the risk up front and set a maximum cost for our own professional charge and administrative costs. You want to be certain that we are providing value for money. Absolutely regardless of cost, we limit our fee to a nominal £20,000. Of course that means you never actually get a bill for our fees at all. That is simply the sum that we deduct as part of the project cost before the sale proceeds are safely in your bank account.

However, to our disappointment and annoyance, the LPA may manage to raise a few objections based on personal judgements with which we strongly disagree. We have to take the decision as to whether to proceed and be ready to appeal, or to make the concessions and spend more money. We stay cool and make a mathematical assessment. It requires changes to the concept drawings and then addenda to several of the expert reports, including the virtual rewriting of the Design and Access Statement. We will assume that such additions are necessary but comparatively lightweight. We will put them in at a further £20,000. Today I am feeling optimistic so I’m not adding anything for unforeseen problems. I am trusting that I and my team are the SAS of planning. 

So we have our planning permission for our 2 ha site at a total cost of £102,000.

Now let’s move on and see exactly what development we might apply for on this 2 ha site.

Alternatively, if you prefer, you can move straight to our calculation of what this notional proposal might leave in your bank account  when we finally succeed in our endeavour.

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