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The Differences and Similarities Between Planning Solicitors (Lawyers) and Planning Consultants

Karen Jones

Partner Karen Jones, in our Planning & Environmental law team, explains the differences between planning solicitors, or lawyers, and planning consultants.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a planning lawyer is - What do you do? There is often a perception of overlap between planning consultants and planning lawyers but if you have the right professionals advising that should not be the case.

As a Legal Associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute I believe I am well placed to know the different roles of a Chartered Town Planner and a Planning Lawyer. The skills and expertise each discipline has are different but highly complementary. On many projects where a strategic overview is needed having both is not a luxury but a prudent and strategically important decision that will more often than not guarantee a smooth and successful outcome to a difficult and protracted project and will save cost in the long run, rather than add to it.

If you are promoting a planning project and seeking authorisation for it by planning permission employing a planning lawyer to work alongside your planning consultants is by far the best way of ensuring you will secure planning permissions facilitating the delivery of your projects. You are increasing the chances of getting what you want. The different disciplines bring different skills to help the project proceed.

Having established the clients goals at the outset of a planning application a planning lawyer will recommend to and agree with the client and fellow professionals a clear strategy and action plan for achieving those goals. Often this is a team effort but planning lawyers are natural planning project managers and coordinators. They will have an eye for gaps in the case put forward and will identify where other expert input is necessary to bolster a case and where to get that expert evidence and input to increase the chance of a successful outcome.

A planning lawyer will “legal health check”  the documents lodged to support the application to verify compliance with the myriad of legal regulations that may apply or have relevance to the application including Environmental Impact Regulations, Habitats Regulations, Development Management Procedure Order, General Permitted Development Order, Use Classes Order, and Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations, to name but a few.

Having an overview from a planning lawyer and legal input from the conception of a project allows professionals to exchange views and decide on strategy for an application. Exploring potential problems and issues helps prepare for them. The sequence of dealing with issues and action taken can be vitally important in ensuring that matters are dealt with in the most cost effective way.

The planning lawyer role in many situations is to take more of an overview, ensuring consistency of approach, making sure that any assertions made in responses are sound and do not conflict with anything said elsewhere. Gaps in a case are where wedges are driven in by the opposing side. It is a planning lawyer’s job to be aware of gaps, fill them if possible with detail that stands up to scrutiny or “cross examination” of some description (including written doubts raised in a written representations procedure or written objections). Any weaknesses in a case will need to be identified early and carefully considered and explanations or assertions about those aspects of the case made to put the best and strongest possible case and reasoning to the Local Planning Authority or ultimately to an  Inspector. All this is undertaken with the background of the legislative framework uppermost in a planning lawyers mind.

Planning lawyers advise on tactical approaches to avoid High Court challenges from third parties and on the best means of getting third parties on side.  The strategic approach of a planning lawyer will include testing the supporting information with a planning application to ensure that it is robust and at the least legally compliant. If a planning application results in a refusal at first instance and a subsequent planning Inquiry or hearing, the initial documentation submitted is vital and must reflect the best case that is possible evidentially to support the appeal. A planning lawyer will have an eye on the third party who may be wishing to raise objections or even challenge the issue of a planning permission. The spectre of a High Court challenge will loom large.

Planning solicitors (lawyers): engage in complex negotiations, often with the Local Planning Authority and sometimes with third parties or other statutory consultees who object or comment. They offer high level strategic and practical advice throughout the matter, including:

  • managing the legal risk on planning applications – advising on procedures and ensuring compliance, reviewing and coordinating all application materials from all external sources and environmental impact assessments to ensure consistency;
  • advice on Section 106 Agreements, providing innovative solutions to practical and legal problems including ensuring the legality of contributions sought, affordable housing arrangements including mix and tenure, highway works on site and off site including section 278 Agreement requirements;
  • advice on the timing provisions for what is often complex and detailed infrastructure delivery;
  • ensuring that obligations meet the tests set out in Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations and assembling the evidence and support to challenge those found to be of dubious legality;
  • handling appeals including conduct of hearings and inquiries, instructing counsel and undertaking advocacy;
  • dealing with legal challenges to planning decisions by way of judicial review and/or statutory review under Section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990;
  • advising on legal issues such as planning enforcement and certificates of lawful development and use;
  • advising on inclusion of land within Local Development Frameworks and promoting land for development whether as promoter or objector.

Some of the benefits of what a chartered town planning will offer are listed below. The Royal Town Planning Institute points out that anyone, from architects and surveyors to home improvement companies may claim to offer planning services.  By hiring a chartered planning consultant you will receive the very best advice, ‘quality assured’ by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the professional body for planning.

RTPI Planning consultants must meet high standards of competence and conduct themselves in a way that inspires trust and confidence in their profession. They work with their clients, stakeholders and the Local Planning Authority involved in granting planning permission.  Their knowledge and expertise will ensure your project or development gets the support it needs to gain planning permission but they will only act within the scope of their professional competence in undertaking planning services and will not stray into areas outside their expertise and competence.

Chartered town planning consultants:

  • provide accurate, impartial and cost-effective professional planning advice to ensure their client’s planning applications are soundly based in planning policy;
  • guide their client’s applications through an often expensive and complex planning process;
  • offer an independent and informed approach to solving complex planning issues;
  • act with the utmost integrity but aim to get the most for their clients from the planning system;
  • build effective relationships with the Local Planning Authority, community and others affected by their clients planning applications;
  • work with planning lawyers and other professional advisors engaged on a matter to ensure the best possible return for their client.

For more information or legal advice, please Karen Jones or a member of our team.

This article is intended for the use of clients and other interested parties. The information contained in it is believed to be correct at the date of publication, but it is necessarily of a brief and general nature and should not be relied upon as a substitute for specific professional advice.