The ‘Stitch in Time’ Principle in Property Development
You probably know the old proverb "a stitch in time saves nine". Essentially, it means doing something small now will save you a whole lot of headaches later.

One of the biggest wastes of time and money when you're developing is having to make multiple amendments to your Council application. So if you can get it right the first time you apply, you save yourself the hassle of continually altering plans and resubmitting them, using up valuable time and potentially adding to your holding costs.

As a result, in property development the best stitch in time you can make is to have a pre-lodgement meeting with Council about your planned development. And if possible, you should have the meeting during your due diligence period.

So what can you do to make your stitch count for nine, or maybe even a few more?
What is a Pre-Lodgement Meeting?

First, let's be clear about what a pre-lodgement meeting is for. Council rules and regulations can often be hard to understand or have lots of "grey areas" that are open to various interpretations. A fairly basic and straightforward application may go through without any hassles, in which case a pre-lodgement meeting isn't as crucial.

But if your planned development...

  • is on the larger side
  • pushes the envelope in any way
  • delves into a grey area
  • may be controversial
  • has any issues that you've already identified

...then finding out in advance what the Council's perspective is likely to be is pure gold. It means you can take all their suggestions or objections into account before submitting your full application, massively increasing your chance of success.

So how can you make sure you get the most value out of a pre-lodgement meeting?
Tip #1 - Each Council Has a Different Approach

First step is to find out your local Council's approach to pre-lodgement meetings. This can include things like:

do they charge a fee?
how long is the waiting period?
do they provide written minutes after the meeting?
do they prefer to talk to town planners and architects, not developers?
can you pay an extra fee to accelerate the process (useful if your due diligence period is short)?
what is the time period allocated, or is there a limit to how many questions you can ask?

Basically, every Council is unique. So make sure you include the pre-lodgement process as part of your research in becoming an area expert.

Tip #2 – Identify All Potential Issues and Challenges Ahead of Time

Spend time brainstorming every issue that Council might potentially raise about your development. This is often best done together with your town planner. Even if you don't really think something will be an issue, have it on your list, and cover it if you get time. It's better to raise it now and be reassured it's fine, than have it jump out and bite you down the track.

Being prepared means you're also in a better position to answer any questions Council might raise, which will give them confidence that you and your team know what you're doing.

And if it's allowed - send in all your questions and concerns PRIOR to the meeting. That way the Council staff can do some background work beforehand, and give you more useful and relevant information in the meeting.
Tip #3 – Don’t Create a Full Development Application

It's also important at this stage not to go overboard and have your full development application prepared. You probably need to have a little more than a drawing on the back of a serviette, sure, but given the likelihood that Council will want changes, it's a waste of time and money to have all the drawings and other application documents already completed.

Tip #4 - Aim to Work as a Team, Not as Opponents

Your aim in the meeting is to reach a point where you and the Council staff member/s work together to determine what's going to work for your site. The last thing you want to do is go into the meeting viewing them as your opposition. So put some effort into building rapport. Dare I say it - if you know who your meeting is with, stalk them online beforehand, so you can have some conversation starters ready. A couple of minutes of general chit-chat at the start of the meeting can make a huge difference to the outcome.

And speaking of teams - think about who should attend the meeting with you. If it's a small, simple development, just you and your town planner will probably be enough. But if it's a big development, very complex or really pushing the rules, you might want to consider taking your architect and/or civil engineer as well.
Tip #5 – Don’t Expect a Definite “Yes”

At the end of the day, the pre-lodgement meeting is a chance to share your plans and get comments or criticisms in return. Without having a full development application in front of them, it's almost guaranteed that the response you get won't be "yes, we love it!". It's much more likely to be a definite “no” or “maybe.”

Both of these responses are fine. If it's a no, then you can either pull out of the deal under your due diligence clause, or go back to the start and begin again, thankful that you didn't blow a whole lot of money on a full set of plans.

With a maybe, that generally gives you a set of criteria you need to meet in order to be successful, which you can then use to shape your full application.

Tip #6 - Get it in Writing

If you're lucky, the Council will provide written minutes or a summary of the meeting in writing. If they don't, then write your own. More importantly, email the person you met with, thanking them for their time, and then include a summary of your understanding of the points that were agreed. Ask them to confirm your recollections are correct. This gives you a written record of the conversation.

Even better, include those written notes with your full planning application, as chances are the person dealing with that will be different to the one you met with.

So there you have it - 6 tips for getting the most out of your pre-lodgement meeting with Council. Happy sewing!
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