Oh the dreaded planning process – the thought of it is enough to make many people give up on their project before they’ve even started!
There is so much to consider, and on top of that, laws are changing all the time. They do love to keep us on our toes! But don’t give up, there are things you can do to increase your chances of a positive outcome.
1. Do your research
Look into the planning history of your property or plot on your council’s planning website, usually, this is easy to find and should show all applications, granted or refused. If there have been many refused applications, it could be quite a tricky situation, but on the other hand, it may just be that, in the council’s opinion, the previous applications have not been the ‘right’ kind of application for that site. It’s definitely worth talking to your architect, and even a planning consultant, if this is the case – they would be able to advise you on the next best steps.
2. Is your site in a conservation area?
If it is, it doesn’t mean you won’t get planning permission, it just means you will have to jump through a few more hoops, as conservation areas have additional constraints. When we found out our site was in a conservation area, we were quite concerned, but after discussing what could be achieved within these constraints with the local planning department and our architect, we felt much more positive going forward.
You'll find that, quite often, planners and conservation officers are keen for a more contemporary, even radical design, because they feel that having something pastiche next door to older houses would be wrong.
3. Do a pre-application if you can
Most councils offer a pre-application service – this means that they look carefully at your project proposal and come back with feedback on the likelihood of whether it would achieve planning permission or not. If the council thinks your proposal requires changes or improvements, you are then in the position to make those changes before you submit you official application. This is not always necessary, but in our case it was particularly useful to know the council’s opinion, because we were applying in a conservation area and we had a particular issue of a large tree which had to be felled in order to build a house on the site. Usually all trees in a conservation area are protected and, quite rightly, you’ll have to work hard to prove that a removal of a mature tree is necessary, which brings me on to the next point.
4. Check if the trees on your site are protected
Some mature trees and all trees in a conservation area are protected, which often means you will need separate planning permission to fell any on your site. We had a Sycamore on our site, and unfortunately it was in a position that made development on the site un-viable unless it came down. At first our local council opposed the removal of the tree, and I had to work very hard to change their mind, which also added a big delay to our project. Instead of just accepting that we had to keep the tree, I contacted the Tree Officer directly and explained our case, and the impact of the tree on the project (that keeping it would make it un-viable).
But before approaching the Council Tree officer, I discussed in detail with a landscape architect what we could propose to change his mind, she suggested that we offer to plant two mature trees of a more superior species, as part of our proposal. This worked! I called the tree officer personally and explained every detail and the reason why we needed to remove the existing tree, and then presented our proposal of the two new trees, and he approved it – we could then include his approval within our planning application.
5. Work with your architect to get the best design possible
There will always be constraints and conditions, no matter where you want to build, so you have to work within these. Working with your architect, you can achieve the best design possible. There will often be issues like height of development, overlooking, materials used etc. All of these can be overcome with some creativity, clever thinking, and yes, compromise! Your architect will be a great asset, they will help you to achieve a good design as well as navigate the planning process.
Our end result that we achieved planning permission for, looked nothing like what we first had in our minds! For example, we really wanted a wooden clad design, but the planners objected, because we were in a conservation area, we had to use brick to match the existing houses.
6. Communicate with your planning department
The best advice I can give is to communicate with your planning officer. Once you’ve submitted a planning application, you will be assigned a planning/case officer. Once this happens, I would suggest a quick call or email to introduce yourself and your project, and make clear to them that you, or your architect, are available should they have any questions about your project. Keep in mind that planning departments are often over-worked, short-staffed and very busy, so regular communication and patience are big factors, and could help to avoid delays or last-minute changes that may result in you having to withdraw your application and start from scratch.
7. Dealing with neighbours' objections, and going to committee for decision
This is a sensitive subject and it can be really difficult to accept, but if you are daring and determined enough to want to build your own home, you’ll have to be prepared for resistance, neighbours will generally object. Unfortunately, this is the norm, people don’t like change, and very often it is very hard work to win people round... and you may not even achieve this in the end. My best advice is to try your best to keep your neighbours up-to-date, be polite in any interactions, and address their concerns to the best of your ability, if they are still going to object, you can do no more. But do try and drum up support for your project too, there may well be neighbours who like your proposal – ask them to send in a letter of support to the council.
We thought that we did absolutely everything right form the start – I sent each of our new-neighbours-to-be a personalised letter, inviting them to a meeting with us to discuss our project. Many neighbours attended the meeting, we presented our architect’s drawings, and even provided neighbours the opportunity to leave feedback or comments (anonymous, if they so wished) on our project. Even after the meeting, I continued to post personalised letters on the latest developments on our project, and details on when we would be submitting our application. At the meeting, we received just one comment on our scheme, but in the end 13 objections were submitted to our application, and, even though the council wanted to approve our application, the submission of seven or more objections triggered the very stressful event of having our application go to committee. In the end, we went to committee (a public meeting in the local town hall) and stood up before the committee members, and an entire room full of other objectors and applicants to defend our application, and thankfully our application was approved there and then, an absolutely huge relief!
If I'm being brutally honest, it’s not a good feeling when you know that most of your neighbours, don’t want your development to be there, but in a city like London, where there is a shortage of housing, and it is continually difficult and more expensive to provide a good home for your family, you have to think outside the box, and unfortunately, neighbour’s opinions have to come way down the list of priorities. And who knows, once your house is actually built, they may change their minds and grow to love it.
8. The decision: approval, rejection and appeal
When you submit your application, you should take no longer than eight weeks to have your decision. Planners are under pressure by the government to make a decision in that timescale, which can be good and bad. It means you can plan to have your decision in eight weeks, but it also means that because planners are under such pressure to make decisions, that they will more readily refuse an application than seek to negotiate for a positive outcome.
It is up to you to know your project well, and to track your application through the system, keep on top of it and don’t allow your application to be refused – as soon as you realise that your application will be refused, withdraw it immediately and resubmit it addressing the problems that the council identified. A second application will not require a fee to be paid.
If you haven’t been able to withdraw your application before a refusal, you can resubmit, or appeal it, but keep in mind that If you decide to appeal to the independent planning inspectorate, they could take at least a year to come to a decision.
I hope that this post has been informative and not put you off trying!
Planning can be a long and painful process, but try to always remember that the rewards will certainly outweigh the hassle.
If you would like to read more on the planning process in the UK, there is some good information on the Urbanist Architecture website.
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