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The role of a Planning Aid England’s Email Advice Service volunteer

Emma Pearman is a Principal Development Planner at CEMEX Camberley and a volunteer with Planning Aid England’s Email Advice Service. The Email Advice Service provides free, independent planning advice (of up to 15min per enquiry) for the general public.

The service is delivered by a panel of 13 PAE volunteers, all of whom are MRTPI, and receives between 150 and 200 enquiries per month

I have been volunteering for the PAE email advice service for the last few years and was attracted to it as a way of volunteering regularly with the convenience of doing so from home and with a small number of hours each week.

I was also attracted to it for my own personal development, as the variety of enquiries and questions we get each week helps to make sure I am up to date with the latest policy and case law, and also requires me on occasion to investigate issues that I would not have otherwise had to do – so I learn something new as well!

Each advice service volunteer has a slot once per week at an agreed time, and we review the enquiries and questions that have come in by email. We then respond to as many of those as we can and feel confident to answer. Some of the team have particular areas of expertise, so if the subject matter is particularly specialist, we can alert the right person to answer the enquiry.

Handling enquiries

In my experience, many of the enquiries relate to development control matters, such as whether something needs planning permission or not, issues with neighbouring planning applications and how to object or respond, and enquiries or complaints about local authority processes during the determination of planning applications. We sometimes receive requests to help local groups respond to major applications, or to help them with neighbourhood plans, and also regularly advise people who need more help whether they are likely to qualify for additional support from Planning Aid on a one-to-one basis.

Planning issues can really cause people to worry and by taking a short amount of time out of my week to answer queries, I feel like I am helping to alleviate some of that stress

Sharing knowledge of the planning system

Since I have been volunteering, I have learned some of the issues and blockages faced by the public when trying to understand and engage with the planning system. Planning can be a complicated process and there are a lot of misconceptions about how it works.

Local authorities, particularly since the pandemic, are under-resourced and often small queries such as whether a proposal needs planning permission is not something that the local authority have the resources to answer. I feel that this is where PAE can add value and really help people, by having the time to answer questions or explain processes as an impartial but knowledgeable third party. This hopefully results in people feeling much happier and able to move in the right direction with their planning application, or helping them to understand why an application was dealt with in a certain way and the processes that were followed, or feeling that their response to a neighbouring application is valid, will be heard and is worth making.

Helping the community 

I find it very rewarding to volunteer with the email advice service. Planning issues can really cause people to worry and by taking a short amount of time out of my week to answer queries, I feel like I am helping to alleviate some of that stress!  

The service has a high satisfaction rate from its users, offers regular training for volunteers, and help from the PAE team should you need it is only ever a call away, which overall makes it a worthwhile service to volunteer for. I think that certainly in the short-term, the demand for the service is only likely to increase and we PAE volunteers will continue to do our best in providing timely and informative responses.

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