Britain has the most intrusive householder planning system in the world. It exercises control over even the smallest developments – repainting your front door, putting up a satellite dish, or paving your front garden.
Because planning powers are spread over 365 councils in England and planning departments are harassed and poorly funded, whether your application is approved swiftly and efficiently, or languishes for weeks before being refused can be a matter of luck and location.
Permitted development (PD) adds extra complication. It grants a blanket planning permission, in advance, to every householder in the country for small and uncontroversial developments. Except that it doesn’t. Flats don’t have PD rights, nor do most houses in conservation areas, or most houses built after the Second World War. They are also subject to a long list of complicated tests and conditions. To most householders, permitted development complicates rather than simplifies the process of extending or enhancing their home.
Every year, thousands of upstanding, law-abiding citizens become subject to enforcement proceedings – accused of breaching planning control and facing the prospect of tearing down an extension or reversing some other form of development that they thought was PD or had planning permission. How to navigate these choppy waters?
Take professional advice. Just 0.01 percent (not an actual statistic) of homeowners and small developers employ the services of chartered town planners. Most take advice from the man down the pub or listen to the voice inside their heads. Too many hire the wrong designer and submit the wrong application. In most of the cases I deal with, the crucial mistake was made at the very beginning of the process, when the homeowner scrimped on the services of a decent designer and went into battle unprepared.
I am a gamekeeper turned poacher. I worked as a town planner at the Environment Agency and in local council planning departments, in a property development firm and as a private planning consultant, before finally setting up Just Planning (just-planning.co.uk), which specialises in helping householders and small developers who have run into planning problems.
As a council planner, I decided the fate of thousands of extensions and other small-scale developments, cheerily stamping a big, red NO almost as often as a begrudging, green YES. I can tell you that planners do get a little thrill from their power to end homeowners’ dreams – it is sometimes the only perk of a job which gets a little samey, to put it mildly.
Designers and applicants get frustrated when councils refuse planning permission without really working with them to improve the application first. It is a fair point, but the reality is that planners do not have the time or the resources (or inclination) to do the designer’s work for them. Planning policies are public information – it is important to look them up before you apply.
Council planners must shoulder some of the blame though. Some refusals are clearly, obviously, unfair. Other applications are refused because the planner has misunderstood the nature of the proposal or rushed the processing of the application. Some decisions are mean-spirited. Some planners think they are at war with applicants, protecting the integrity of the home front from dastardly extension incursions.
When I worked as a council planner, I saw countless people submit a half-cooked application and justifiably get refused, or submit a decent scheme and get refused unfairly, and then simply give up. Such refusals mean that people all around the country, having spent hundreds and thousands of pounds on their application, must go without the extension that would give their kids their own rooms or the family a large, bright breakfast room. Worse, they get permission for a compromise proposal that isn’t really what they wanted.
It saddened me when I had to refuse applications for proposals that were badly designed or just not presented in a way that I could persuade my line managers to support, and then never heard from the applicant again. Did they give up entirely? In most cases, I could see the small changes that would have made their proposal acceptable. Planners are expected to give general advice on why an application is refused but can’t give advice that should be coming from their architect or planning consultant. My planning decisions often delivered very poor outcomes and in many cases I wished I could have explained to applicants how to appeal my decision.
In late 2014, I applied for planning permission to extend my little ground floor flat in west London. I was working at the time as a planner for a different council, in the east of the city. It genuinely never occurred to me that I might be refused permission. I was an experienced planner; I understood the local policies and guidance, and the extension I was applying for was conventional and boring. I was so confident that I didn’t bother to call the case officer and try to influence the decision.
My application was refused. The planner advised that I resubmit, significantly reducing the size of the extension. I did so, obtained permission, and carried out the works. Six months later, my next-door neighbour applied for an extension that matched exactly the one for which I had originally been refused consent (i.e. larger than what I had ultimately built). His application was approved by the same officer who had turned me down. To this day, I regret that I didn’t fight harder to get the outcome I wanted. At the time, the experience opened my eyes to the impact that the random, unjustified decisions of individual planners can have on the humble householder and the rightful enjoyment of their homes.
I left council planning (and joined the dark side) because I wanted to help both the people who were submitting weak applications in the first place, with little hope of success, and the people who were being treated so unfairly by our failing planning system. In the former case, simple changes can make a bad scheme acceptable. In the latter, you must take the application away from the council altogether and have the decision reconsidered by a government inspector through a planning appeal.
My company, Just Planning, is an appeals specialist. I have personally submitted thousands of planning appeals and won most of them. I know how easy it can be to get permission for what you want, and how many people end up with something less than that. Our homes are our most valuable assets and the places where we spend a great deal of our time. An extension lasts forever (pretty much) and it is important to get it right.
This book is intended for householders who are engaging with the planning system and need some direction. It will also be of interest to designers and property developers, who also grapple with a complicated planning system. It starts with a rant on the failings of planning when it comes to smaller-scale developments. It goes on to set out six key steps on the planning journey: getting the right design, exploiting permitted development rights, understanding how planning decisions are made, applying tactically and effectively, appealing a refusal, and avoiding enforcement action. It ends with some hacks – the tips and tricks I have learned over the years that may smooth your passage through the planning maze.
Disclaimer: I provide general advice derived from my own experience over the years. It mostly applies to England and Wales – the planning systems are slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland (though the principles are the same). My advice is not intended to be exhaustive. Planning is a complex world, as you are about to find out, so always take professional advice that is bespoke to your situation, before relying on any of the information in the following pages.
You may notice that I refer interchangeably to “planners” and “case officers” – in both cases, I mean employees of the council who process and assess planning applications. For ease of comprehension (and through force of habit), I refer to the bodies that decide planning applications as “councils”, though strictly speaking I mean “local planning authorities”. I refer to the people who prepare and submit planning applications as “designers” – I avoid using the term “architect’” because not all the people who prepare and submit planning applications are fully-fledged architects (and they don’t need to be) and the term “draughtsperson” seems awkward and clumsy. Terms that you might not be familiar with (planners love jargon!) are highlighted in bold and defined in the glossary at the back of the book.