The Pre application discussion
The Government encourages local councils and developers to have informal discussions about a future development before the planning application is made. In theory this is to allow changes to be made at an early stage before too much time and money has been spent on one version of a project.
These meetings are often viewed with suspicion but it is important to remember that planners cannot give an indication to the developer as to whether or not their proposal would be acceptable or not at this stage. It is often difficult to find out whether these meetings have taken place. But if you know a site is up for grabs and you think the planning department is just not telling you, one way to find out if discussions have taken place is to make a Freedom of Information request.
New guidance promotes pre-application discussions more strongly but also says that other parties should be involved and that the Statement of Community Involvement should apply. Pre-application consultation is required for onshore wind in England, as is usually part of a standard process for larger developments.
You are entitled to ask the district council
If you suspect that discussion is being held on a proposal for development that hasn’t yet been published as a planning application, you are perfectly entitled to ask the district council, as the planning authority, what it knows about it.
The Environmental Information Regulations of 2004 require public bodies, if asked, to release to the requester, within 20 working days, any information they have on proposals for the land. There are certain defined circumstances in which they can withhold it but they wouldn’t often apply in the cases in which the ordinary resident would be interested.
The rules cover pre-application discussions and any other less formal enquiries. Your request needn’t be in writing, it can be oral, for instance, by asking a councillor, in or out of a meeting, and the rules would equally apply to a town or parish council as well as to a district council. Any blanket response such as ‘Pre-Application discussions are confidential’ is misconceived and should be challenged.
Your enquiry can be submitted online through the council’s Freedom of Information portal, citing the Environmental Information Regulations. Requests are perhaps best framed in relation to an area or place and a time period, without any reference to the parties you think might be involved. For instance “Could I please be informed of any proposal of which the council has become aware in the last year, in the form of a pre-application request or otherwise, for development in the field of which the centre is at SX66805021? Please include the record of any advice the council may have given.”
Make sure your request is acknowledged, and follow it up if you haven’t had a reply within 20 working days.
If you’re not feeling confident about asking for information please read this decision by the Information Commissioner here
South Hams District Council
Email to planning: email@example.com
Devon County Council
Email to planning: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends of the Earth Guides: