Self-Build: Planning Permission

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Of all the many hurdles that beset the wannabe self-builder, it is planning permission that seems to have the reputation as being the most frustrating, unpredictable process of all. The concept of getting an individual piece of genius house design approved by one's peers touches a particular nerve among the average pioneering self-builder – the same self-builder who is constructing a unique home mainly because they don't like what everyone else likes. The thought of having to get approval from future neighbours and the local council establishment is bound to get most people's backs up.

The fact is that since the introduction of the current legislation in 1947, planning policies have maintained an uneasy balance between protecting both the built and green landscape of the UK and satisfying the need for more housing. The debate about whether the law has weighed down too heavily on one side or the other is one that everybody involved with the housing market has an opinion on. Planners are ruled by the whims of national and local politicians and they are under pressure to release as little land as possible for new homes. Meanwhile the local politicians are generally keen to approve schemes that are as uncontroversial (boring) as possible.

If you must get involved in all this, a confrontational approach is the easiest to fall into when trying to get your wonderful design through planning – but it's also the least effective. "It is so much better to get the planning officer on side from the start and really make them feel that they have an input in the design process and an influence over what is being built on their patch," says the award-winning architect Jane Burnside.

"There are so many mediocre houses built across the UK, it is inevitable that when the planning officer sees a new application on his desk he will fear the worst. A successful self-builder will understand this fear and ensure that they bring in the planner at an early design stage – and use the early meetings to inform them of likely issues that will need to be addressed in the design.

"Having developed your design, your architect should present the planners with a well-considered strategy that both respects their legislation and responds to the context – be that either a landscape or built context. A well-argued case will always win because it is the right decision. Never try to defend the indefensible. Not only is it embarrassing, but you will lose. I have found that the most inventive design solutions are born from the most restrictive planning legislations – so be informed, be positive and be brave."

Ken Dijksman, a planning consultant for 17 years and a former planning officer, says: "One of the key things I'd stress is that it is vital to treat planning like a game – it's less about regulations and more about petty local politics. Canny self-builders will need to develop serious personal charm and adopt a tactical approach in order to get the most out of it. A good understanding of local planning policies and the legal context – the rules of the game – is also essential if you want to play the system. Remember that the whole system is negatively charged and planning officers never get into trouble for saying 'no'. So he who negotiates wins: planning permissions cannot be superseded (and they currently last for five years) – so, for example, you can start off with an uncontroversial scheme and then, once it gets approved, apply again for something a bit bigger and continue to ratchet up the scale in terms of size, height and adornment – and the planners will find each increase difficult to refuse. So you can end up with much more than they would ever have allowed initially had it landed on their desk unannounced."

One little-known phrase that should be in the lexicon of all good self-builders and renovators is permitted development (PD) rights. PD rights allow you to carry out a range of small scale developments to your home without permission. There is a fixed PD allowance per property, but if you keep within the limits you can, for example, build an extension to your home in absolutely any style you want - whether it be a fancy glass contraption or something entirely outrageous: as long as it meets the building regulations.

The Government is currently looking at ways of limiting the remaining freedoms in this area, but PD rights are already much reduced in sensitive locations like National Parks and Conservation Areas. They can also be explicitly removed or limited by a planning condition, or Article 4 Directive. Assuming the full allowance is available then PD extensions can add an extra 15 per cent to the volume of the existing house, or 70 cubic metres, whichever is the greater, up to a maximum of 115 cubic metres. This is reduced to 10 per cent or 50 cubic metres for terraced houses. Space does not allow all the caveats to these rules to be explained here, but these can be checked out at PD rights also relate to the provision of doors and windows, loft conversions, porches, conservatories and outbuildings.

Used well, the manipulation of PD rights allowances can transform the planning process for any project. Self-builders might be particularly surprised to know, for instance, that they will require no permission to create new windows or doors in an existing house – so long negotiations about the exact positioning of windows at the planning stage may seem rather pointless when one considers what can be done under PD rights once the house is built. PD rights only come into effect, however, upon completion of a property, although some enlightened planning officers might recognise this and allow small changes as minor amendments to your plans. You can also (currently) construct very large outbuildings covering up to half of your garden area for additional accommodation (such as games rooms and home offices), provided, of course, you don't actually build another house.

By not knowing the way the game is played, self-builders sometimes fail to follow every move as their application weaves its way through the planning process, with potentially disastrous consequences. Many self-builders assume that submitting the application form and associated drawings is the final part of their involvement, when in fact it is just the start. A formal refusal – particularly of outline planning permission - can blight a potential building plot and undermine its value for years to come, but few self-builders understand that a refusal should never really be allowed to happen. Applications can be withdrawn at any time during the eight-week long decision making process. If you get the indication from the planners that a refusal is likely then you should formally withdraw the application at that stage, before a notice is sent out. You can then redesign and reapply for free within six months.

For those applicants unlucky enough not to get an approval through the delegated powers of the planning officer, the planning committee awaits – as does a public meeting on your scheme.

"For many self-builders this can be one of the defining moments of the project and I think most of them dread it," says Ken Dijksman. " The applicant gets two or three minutes to make their case and then has to listen to all their neighbours objecting. The Committee, which consists of local councillors who are professionally unqualified but love to pass judgement on house designs, then discuss the scheme. With a well-designed and well-presented application the result should be successful, although for the applicant it really is the most stressful and unpredictable process."

There are some ground rules to bear in mind before getting involved with planning. Think about the degree of risk you are prepared to take; a parcel of land without planning permission is not a building plot. So if you are looking at agricultural land without planning permission the risks are very high and your options are very limited.

Each local authority sets out its own planning policies for the new development of land in their patch through a document known as the Local Development Plan or Framework. This will often include a development boundary - a line drawn around every city, town and village to indicate where the countryside ends and the built-up area begins. The plans are usually updated on a regular basis and at certain times the council accepts submissions from landowners and other interested parties for potential allocation of their land for residential development in the plan – meaning land that was previously farmland at around £4,000 an acre can then be seen as fully-fledged development land and valued at perhaps 200 times that. So the pressure on the planners and local politicians can be rather severe and achieving a housing allocation is way beyond the scope of individual self-builders.

So as an individual it is always best to buy sites with, or subject to, planning permission. "Outline" permission means the principle of a house has been approved, but the exact size is unknown. A "detailed" permission specifies exactly what can be built, but you can make further applications to change it. You can buy an existing house and replace it with a new one, provided the local policies allow a reasonable increase in size. Or you can apply to build on existing garden land, which is becoming increasingly common. Over 20,000 individuals in the UK still build their own homes each year, so take heart - it can be done!