Q&A: Planning Permission

Jason Orme answers some frequently asked questions
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The Independent Online

Q. How do I make a planning application?

Q. How do I make a planning application?

A. An application form should be submitted to your local authority along with a comprehensive set of plans and elevations, an Ordnance Survey siteplan and a site layout plan. These should be prepared to the best possible standard by an experienced designer. You should also list the external materials (brick, stone etc) to be used. A covering letter that gives a brief rundown of the scheme and the design elements you took into consideration could also be a good idea. The form should be accompanied by the standard application fee, which is currently £265.

Q. What happens after the application is submitted?

A. Your planning officer will make an initial assessment of the scheme and decide whether or not to consider it under his own delegated powers or whether the scheme has to go to the planning committee stage. Initially, the local authority will register your application and tell you how long they require to make a decision – under government targets this must now be no more than eight weeks. The council can, however, ask for your approval to extend this schedule.

Q. What kind of planning permission should I look for in a building plot?

A. A building plot without planning permission is simply a bit of land. Any vendor worth their salt would have maximised the plot's value through its planning status prior to putting it on the market – so be very wary of plots being sold at an appealing price with "planning potential". Avoid plots subdivided from large fields and sold at discount prices in greenfield locations – their prices may seem appealing but in truth they have very little chance of gaining planning permission (regardless of what the publicity claims). If the companies organising them were that confident of their gaining approval, they would have kept them for themselves.

In terms of plots with planning permission, check that the consent is less that five years old – work has to be commenced within five years of approval, otherwise the consent is deemed to have lapsed. It is worth checking with the local authority that the reference number on the front of the notice letter (which you should of course see prior to purchase) is genuine although instances of deception are rare. Ensure that the outline planning permission is relevant for what you want to do – notices usually give a general outline of the scheme approved, for instance "a single-storey detached dwelling". If the plot has detailed planning permission for an individual scheme, don't forget that this is not what you have to build. Treat it as something you can build, but never be scared about pushing your design scheme to the limits of what you want.

Q. Can I ask the planning officer for advice?

A. Experiences of individual planning officers vary considerably. In some instances, the "good" planners will be on hand to provide informal advice on what they are looking for and should be consulted early on; "bad" planners (of which there are inevitably a few) will refuse all correspondence, leaving you very much in the dark. Bear in mind that all advice is considered informal and has no official bearing on the outcome of the decision.

Q. What if things go wrong?

A. The first reaction of most who receive a refusal notice is to appeal against the decision. But there is another option, assuming you want to keep hold of the site, which is to come up with a new design and resubmit – which is free if you do so within 12 months. The appeals process is long-winded and in addition to being time consuming can be very expensive. As a general rule of thumb, unless the decision didn't take into account all of the issues that you feel should have been raised, try and avoid the process where possible. Of the 18,194 appeals decided during 2003-4, only 5,992 were allowed. If you have a particular complaint against your planning officer, there are due processes for doing this through the planning ombudsman.

Q. What if I want to make changes to my scheme after submitting?

A. There is a facility to make small changes to your scheme under the minor amendments programme. This tends to apply to modest changes to the external appearance of the house such as window positions or small detailing; larger changes such as different roof shapes, bigger footprints and so forth will require a whole new application. If you want to change your plans during the application process you should withdraw the existing scheme and can then submit the amended design free of charge within 12 months. If a decision notice has already been issued, you will have to apply again from scratch.

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