Property: Fear no more the planning inspector

If you're applying for permission to alter your house, don't be intimidated by the bureaucrats, says Clive Fewins. They aim to please
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The Independent Online
In a celebrated case in the late Eighties, an Oxford man had a protracted battle with local planners when he wished to insert a fibreglass model of a shark in the roof of his suburban, terraced house. After six years he won. The shark is still there, its tail protruding 30ft into the air from the roof of the building. In his 1992 appeal decision permitting the shark to stay, the planning inspector stated that it is not the purpose of planning to enforce a "boring and mediocre uniformity" on the built environment.

Running counter to popular opinion, the episode actually serves to illustrate the freedom we enjoy in our planning system, which, according to Oxfordshire- based local authority planning officer Ken Dijksman, is one of the least restrictive in Europe.

Mr Dijksman points out that a non-listed house that is not in a conservation area can be extended by up to 15 per cent, or up to 50 cubic metres - whichever is the greater - without planning permission. It can go as high as the rest of the building as long as it is not within two metres of the boundary of the property.

He adds that if your property is not listed or in a conservation area you can cover up to 50 per cent of the surrounding plot with outbuildings of up to four metres in height. In some circumstances, these buildings may be used as living accommodation.

Mr Dijksman maintains that, in fact, the British planning system allows so much scope that in some instances people complain that it is too free - especially over the regulations governing the erection of satellite dishes.

"Despite the system having changed little over the years, the penny has not dropped with most people submitting applications," he says. "People do not seem to realise that they have enormous freedoms. It's usually just a case of using these freedoms - permitted development rights in planners' jargon - to their advantage.

"It is always wise to consult your local planners informally before you go to the trouble and expense of having a plan drawn up.," he continues. "Unless the plan is likely to be refused in principle - because it directly contravenes a local or national planning guideline - most planning departments will be prepared to negotiate."

The key thing when drawing up a scheme is not to ask the question "what do I want?" but "what can I do?" he explains. "Most planning officers spend their lives running round like lunatics and will not have time to say: 'If you make this a little smaller you will not need planning permission'. The onus really is on you, as the applicant, to ask the right questions."

Mr Dijksman says that because of misconceptions people often shy away from submitting really imaginative schemes that might well be acceptable to planners. "In eight years I can count the number of really imaginative schemes I have had to deal with on the fingers of one hand. For all sorts of reasons people prefer to play safe and the end result far too often is mediocrity.

"It is true that sometimes planners will recommend changes to the more imaginative schemes so that they are more in keeping with what is already present nearby, but in general they welcome imaginative schemes."

Four years ago Mr Dijksman wrote a book, Planning Permission: The Essential Guide for Homeowners, which he published himself. It sold 3,000 copies and, as a privately produced publication, made very little profit. He has just produced a second impression.

As well as teaching applicants to ask the right questions, the book deals with appeals against refusal of planning permission and both how to object and overcome objections by lobbying local councillors.

One thing the book does not cover is the fact that under new government guidance on planning policies, local authorities are likely to be encouraged to put additional emphasis on what the draft guidance note calls "a sense of local identity and regional diversity... including local or regional building traditions or materials".

"This is quite revolutionary," says Mr Dijksman. "It will give ammunition to local authorities to say to applicants 'make it more interesting'. And it will, hopefully, encourage people to get away from the repetitiveness of house design in so many parts of the country and will result in far more local distinctiveness. It is very much to be welcomed."

Planning Permission: The Essential Guide for Homeowners by Ken Dijksman, price pounds 11.95 (including p&p), is available from Portland Books, 28, Wytham Street, Oxford OX1 4TS (01865 244168)

Planning permission - the groundwork

Before submitting an application:

Check whether you live in a conservation area, a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty. In all of these, the normal permitted development rights do not usually apply.

Talk informally to your local planners and explain what you have in mind before employing someone to draw up your plans.

Don't seek any written pre-application advice - informal written comments are likely to be less flexible than verbal ones and may represent a hasty, partial assessment of your proposal. This could have an influence on the formal consideration of the planning application, if it goes ahead.

Resist the temptation to leave a copy of your sketch proposal with the planning officer. This is because the sketch is unlikely to be an accurate or sophisticated representation of what you are seeking and could lead to an early refusal.

A site meeting with the planning officer is probably the best method of gauging the likelihood of an approval. However, not all planning authorities will agree to this. The alternative is to submit photographs.

It is often wise to ask the person who draws up your plans to act as your agent in dealing with the planning authority. Try to find someone who has had previous dealings with your local planners - and preferably had plans passed by them.