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Research into the Role of Pre-Application Discussions and Guidance in Planning - Research Findings

DescriptionThe Scottish Executive commissioned The Customer Management Consultancy Ltd to review the role of pre-application discussion and guidance in the planning system in Scotland.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateJune 01, 2000
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No. 85Research into the Role of Pre-Application Discussions and Guidance in Planning

The Customer Management Consultancy Ltd

The Scottish Executive commissioned The Customer Management Consultancy Ltd to review the role of pre-application discussion and guidance in the planning system in Scotland, and identify how it could be made more effective. The Planning Audit Unit had previously noted that such discussions can contribute to the "efficient handling of planning applications where they are focused and well managed"... but "experience from the audit has shown this is not always the case." Peter Gibson, Robert Stevenson and Derek Manson-Smith undertook the research to identify good and bad practice.

Main Findings

  • Most planning authorities are more than willing to engage in pre-application discussions.
  • There are a variety of approaches to pre-application discussions, and more than one type of approach can be effective. However, few planning authorities publicise their procedures on pre-application discussions, so applicants and their agents may not know what to expect.
  • Lack of consistency between pre and post application discussions and planning authority personnel is the main criticism made by applicants and agents.
  • Failure to include in applications all information requested during pre-application discussions is the main criticism made of applicants by planning authorities.
  • There was general support for a Planning Advice Note on pre-application discussions: this should not be over prescriptive, but should focus on the need of authorities to publicise clear procedures and to ensure consistent, transparent handling of applications where there have been previous discussions.

Main Findings

What are PADs?

  • A pre-application discussion (PAD) as opposed to a general enquiry about a planing matter, is:
    • a two way process, involving an element of dialogue and possibly negotiation.
    • concerned with a proposal that is site specific and has been developed to a fairly advanced stage ie outline plans and sketch drawings are available.
    • based on a fairly firm intention to submit a planning application.

Who takes part?

  • Planning authorities were generally more than willing to engage in PADs. However, only three at the time of research had written policies on their approach to PADs, and few recorded the amount of staff time spent on such discussions.
  • Most authorities made written records of meetings and most were willing to make these available to applicants or agents if requested. Only two did so automatically.
  • Those involved in PADs tended to be agents acting on behalf of applicants on one side and, on the other, it was usually but not invariably the development control officer who would process an application which emerged. Statutory consultees are rarely involved in round table discussions.
  • Some development control departments actively co-ordinate the response of other parts of the council, such as roads and environment. Applicants and agents expressed a strong desire for a more corporate approach by councils. However, some wished to have direct contact with other statutory consultees.


  • Most PADs focused on a proposal for a specific site, leading to a formal application. Applicants and agents stressed the need for consistency in the pre and post application stages: over a third mentioned different council officers dealing with them at the two stages, and some mentioned different advice being given.


  • Most people agreed that well managed PADs should allow planning applications to be processed quicker. However, it was hard to find evidence that this happened in practice, and applications tended to take longer than agents and applicants expected. Authorities explained that there were at least two reasons for this: first, applicants did not always follow the advice given to them during PADs, by failing to provide required information, and second the full consultation process still had to be followed which might raise issues or objections not encountered earlier.


  • There were costs for both parties to be involved in PADs, but these were generally considered worth bearing. There were some concerns that planning authorities could not recover their costs through fees, but the general view was that charging was not a good idea if it discouraged applicants from making early contact.


  • It was hard to say that PADs improved the quality of planning applications and resultant developments. A number of examples were identified which resulted in improved quality, where all parties had engaged in discussions with an open mind.
  • However there were cases where the PAD was seen by development control to be used as part of the process of 'softening up' an authority before the formal application possibly, as one agent suggested, where a developer had paid a top price for land and needed to recoup the investment. There were other cases, however, where PADs did not result in improved quality applications because authorities were seen by agents and applicants to hide behind 'policy' and refused to enter into an open dialogue.
  • It was generally agreed that there was little role for councillors and community councils and the general public in PADs. However, in the interests of transparency it was agreed that the existence of pre-application discussion should be on the file. Many councils already ask a question on planning application forms about pre-application discussions.
  • Most saw the provision of design guidance for a site as a good way of informing pre-application discussions. Some authorities are seeking to incorporate such guidance into development plans.
  • Development briefs were seen as valuable by all parties in certain circumstances, for example where more than one developer was interested in a particular site or building. Planning authorities, however, said that briefs were time consuming to prepare, involving as they did consultation with other agencies, and could cause delay.
  • Procedural guidance on development control was generally rated highly by agents and applicants.
  • There was general support for a Planning Advice Note on PADs. This should have the objective of promoting good practice rather than imposing rigid procedures.


  • Planning authorities should:
    • have agreed procedures on PADs;
    • publicise these and give information to applicants on service standards;
    • train staff on the procedures;
    • log staff time spend on PADs;
    • ensure that the same development control office deals with the PAD and the application;
    • co-ordinate the council's corporate response;
    • keep a written record of all discussions relating to a site or development and make this available;
    • include a question about PADs on application forms to ensure consistency;
    • make more use of written guidance in the form of design guidance and development briefs.
  • The Scottish Executive should:
    • give specific guidance to planning authorities regarding the requirements of the General Development Order on registering a planning application where information such as a traffic or retail impact study has not been provided, despite being requested during a pre-application discussion;
    • consider ways to use performance indicators to reflect the importance of PADs as well as processing planning applications.
  • Statutory consultees should be encouraged to adopt a policy for handling PADs and publicise this.

Research Methods

The research was in three stages:

Stage 1 Postal Surveys were undertaken of Planning Authorities, Statutory Consultees and Users (Applicants and Agents). Planning agents in Scotland were also invited to send comments on PADs.

Stage 2 Six case studies were undertaken, in Angus, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Moray, Renfrewshire and West Lothian with semi structured interviews with officials and applicants and agents who had been involved in PADs.

Stage 3 Findings and conclusions from the research were tested on workshops of officials, agents and consultees.

CMC was advised by an Advisory group throughout the project. It is grateful to them and to all those who gave so freely their time to assist the research.

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