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Improving your planning skills

Too busy to squeeze in professional development? You’re not alone. Are there any shortcuts? Actually, yes there are…. There are some surprisingly easy ways to learn quickly.

It would be great to sit down with a senior colleague and pick their brains, but too often they’re not available. And when they are free, it can be tricky to phrase the right question without appearing incompetent. So what can you do to help yourself?

Your best critical friend

Every good planner needs a critical friend who is impartial and will not shield you from the honest truth. Someone who will tell it to you straight. A completely confidential source that will not threaten your professionalism in the office. Welcome your critical friend, the Planning Inspector on other peoples' appeals.

p24_BFG.pngSee your development through different eyes by reading appeal Decisions for developments similar to your own. The trick is to let the Inspector's perspective be your critical friend. You can disagree, argue, grind your teeth and (as long as you didn’t do this aloud) it’ll be a completely confidential way of learning.

The Planning Inspectorate really should win awards for pithy writing, with Decision Notices usually succinct, clear and to the point.. If only Quentin Blake could illustrate every appeal….

A rapid read of a short, 3 page appeal Decision Notice takes only 5-10 minutes. You rapidly find yourself seeing development proposals from a fence-top position, with positives and negatives clearly set out, quickly followed by a clear and reasoned decision to fall one way or another. In my experience there’s no easier way to rapidly get into the right mindset for a critique of your own development. The Decision Notice for another appeal has suddenly become your Critical Friend. Available 24/7, completely professional and able to challenge you without making you feel foolish. What’s not to like?

Learning from others' appeals

How can you learn from others’ appeals? Our top 5 tips are:

  1. Get into the Decision Maker's mindset. In preparing your case you will already have rehearsed the benefits of the development, but now step into the shoes of a Decision Maker. There's no better way to shift your perspective to a Decision Maker's point of view than by reading an appeal Decision.
  2. How have the relevant policies been applied on other cases? Look at appeal Decision Notices involving the same policies as apply in your case, whether specific Local Plan policies or NPPF policies. It’s surprising how often people read the same policy differently.  Not only can this reveal weaknesses you hadn’t previously spotted, it can also sometimes give new strengths to add to your case. 
  3. Re-consider the development proposals from a different perspective. It's easy to get tunnel-vision from looking very intently at your own proposals. You can broaden your perspective out by looking at other appeals for similar development. This can identify additional issues or unexpected angles you had inadvertently overlooked in your own scheme. While it's not always comfortable to see what you've missed, forewarned is forearmed.      
  4. Step back and look dispassionately at the problem. In other appeals, how did the Inspectors respond to the arguments you are using for your own case? How much weight did they give to different aspects? Then reconsider whether your case is as strong as you think, and how you might bolster it. 
  5.  Consider the worst outcome. If your planning application has already been refused or looks like it will be, consider carefully whether your best strategy is to revise the design and resubmit, rather than appeal. Think more broadly and strategically about different ways you could achieve success.

Hitting your target

Looking at other appellants’ Decision Notices is like watching a paper aeroplane competition to see which flies best. You might then add weight to your appeal, or change its shape entirely.

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There are many ways to shape an appeal statement. If an appeal statement were a paper aeroplane then the best design is ... probably a dart, namely a better planning application.

p24_dart_is_best_v2.pngCrucially, a dartboard is a known target. You know the decision maker in advance, and the rules of the game allow you to have multiple attempts. With a planning application issues can be dealt with by amending the scheme as the application progresses. If refused, you can resubmit the application, perhaps with more supporting evidence on the second try.

In contrast, an appeal with an unknown Inspector is a bit like trying to fly in gusty weather. A favourable gust might just take you over the line but it’s risky. The best way to hit the target is to improve your planning application and only use an appeal if absolutely necessary.

How do you improve your prospects of success?

The best way to overcome objections is with concrete facts and hard evidence. Crucially, facts enable the decision maker to justify their decision in favour of your proposal. For example, if your proposal includes landscaping around its edge, bolster your case by providing a quote from a reputable source on the contribution that hedges make to biodiversity.  This shifts your case up a gear from a mere opinion to an evidenced fact.

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For residential developments, there is a host of sources of evidence if you only look.  Links to suitable statistics that can be used are available in my blogs on winning appeals with good evidence on the need for affordable housing and on using house prices to evidence a local need for market housing.

For self-build schemes there is a legal requirement on LPAs to give enough suitable development permissions to meet the identified demand.  There are three good sources of evidence that you may be able to use to demonstrate demand exceeds supply in your local area, available in my blog on self-build plots.

Fresh ideas to improve your planning application or appeal statement

For specific issues check out some of my blogs for fresh ideas, For example on design versus housing numbers, heat pumps, class Q conversions, or exceptional designs in the countryside as per NPPF 80(e) and its predecessor NPPF 79. Sometimes altering a scheme with additional landscaping or adding street trees can make all the difference to winning a planning appeal.
       
For information on appeal timescales, the probability of success under different Inspectors, and more ideas, keep an eye on the regular updates on the Appeal Finder Blog page.

Learning from previous appeal Decisions – where do you start?

A good place to start is the appeals map, as it helps to picture where similar appeals have occurred. There are various ways to do this:
- by keyword, which is especially useful if you have a less common type of development. A worked example is available here.
- by location, ideal for finding developments in your area. It works best for villages and towns where the site address will almost certainly include the place name, but less well for locations which may be known by different names.
- by local planning authority area and a recent date range.
- by Inspector (useful when responding to the LPA’s Statement of Case, by which time you should know the Inspector’s name).

Wherever you start, the most important thing is to START.  As they say, the journey starts with a single step. Don’t let events overtake you, but instead stay ahead by starting to learn from others’ appeal Decision Notices.  You’ll be glad you did!

The surprising truth about our clients

You might be surprised to discover most of Appeal Finder’s clients don’t do many appeals. Instead they use appeal Decision Notices to avoid having to appeal in the first place. Their secret is to learn from others’ appeals, to help their own planning applications go more smoothly. If it works for them, it can work for you too. Take out a subscription today to try us out.

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