The consensus of opinion amongst many self builders is that the biggest hurdle they will have to jump and the greatest brake on their plans and ambitions, will come from and through the planning office of their local authority. In many cases that’s, unfortunately, quite true and readers of this magazine constantly chronicle their dismay over the fact that planning officers won’t talk to them prior to application, won’t negotiate once an application has been made and, generally, seem to go out of their way to make the whole process as difficult as possible.
Forest of Dean District Council has long been an authority that seeks to do things differently.
Officers from the council were amongst the first to recognise that Building Control, having Statutory Powers, should have a role to play in the warranty business and their efforts evolved into the LABC New Homes and Self Build warranties that are available today. They regularly arrange free seminars to which regular applicants are invited to listen to talks about industry innovations and changes to the regulations.
This ethos of seeing themselves as partners rather than adversaries spreads into the planning department where they hold regular forums to which agents who regularly submit planning applications within their district are invited in order to discuss changes and explore ways of working together.
The June 2015 forum started with the agents having a half hour meeting of their own at which they discussed various points, which they wanted raised and these issues formed the first items on the agenda. Of principal interest were the quality of pre-application advice, the time taken for validation of applications and, what the agents saw as over zealous rulings from the council’s Heritage and Conservation advisor.
The main concerns that the agents had with pre-app advice was the time it was taking and the quality of the information provided. Clive Reynolds, development manager, pointed out that they did manage to provide a response within 21 days in 70% of cases but that, in others, the delay was often caused by the fact that they had to wait for responses from other bodies before they could meaningfully reply.
An agent raised the issue of whether more information would be forthcoming if the authority moved to charging for pre-apps. Peter Williams, group manager, Planning & Housing, replied that this was under constant consideration but, backed up by Patrick Molyneux, leader of the council and portfolio holder for planning, stated that there was no point in moving to a charging system if the service remained the same. They felt that they did give a good service. Officers were available to discuss potential applications and pre-app advice was an essential part of the process. What they couldn’t do, however, was to do the job of the agents.
One of the agents immediately admitted that they tended to use the pre-app process when they were uncertain and another piped up from the back that in his opinion the council was one of the best. Smiles all round.
As far as validation was concerned, that should not be an issue in the future as the council had recently updated and issued a validation checklist covering all types of application. The agents requested that minor infringements or mistakes be dealt with by a telephone call and officers agreed that that was sensible.
Apparently the council has recently engaged a new heritage and conservation advisor and agents felt that he was being overly controlling in terms of his requirements. It was causing problems with pricing and straining their relationship with clients when they had to commission extra studies. In some cases the requirements were pricing schemes out of the market, agents complained that the opinions expressed by this individual were arbitrary and subjective and they wondered what guidance he received from the council.
Faced with direct criticism of one of their own the officers, nevertheless, they agreed to look into the matter and investigate whether further information could be provided to advise applicants on the scale and nature of details that would be needed to avoid issues occurring. It was as much as they could say. A marker had been put down and the agents accepted that this was as far as they should or could push the matter.
The meeting moved on to other matters, referring in passing to CIL, which is still under consideration with no firm proposals on the horizon, and to the Allocations plan, which has recently been published.
Emma Hughes, principal planning officer then informed the forum that, following national government guidance, the council would no longer be using sustainability as a reason for refusal on barn conversions to residential. Peter Williams brought up the issue of portal framed and Dutch barns and reiterated his view that a proposal must be a conversion and that if it constituted a re-build, it was outside the parameters. Agents concurred.
Clive Reynolds confirmed that their policy of requiring applications to demonstrate compliance with energy efficiency standards and codes had been overtaken by other regulations and that henceforth these matters would fall within the remit of the Building Regulations. Applicants with an existing consent requiring action should apply for the removal of the condition or submit a Building Regulations application.
Nigel Gibbon, forward planning officer, reported on their Allocations plan and confirmed that the council felt that they could demonstrate a five-year supply of land but that, clearly this would be tested at a series of planning appeals taking place. A question from the floor about the impact of ‘The Right to Build’ was answered by saying that the impact of this new legislation was yet to be fully understood and that they would have to see what happened. One suspects that most authorities are adopting this attitude at present.
Clive Reynolds outlined recent changes in legislation, the most important of which, from a self builder’s point of view, must be that in future local authorities have just eight weeks in which to make a decision on the discharge of planning conditions; otherwise they will be deemed to satisfy. He also outlined the new requirements for sustainable drainage (SUDs) and the requirement for all planning applications to be referred to the County Council for their opinion on compliance.
Lastly he referred to Affordable Housing and basically confirmed that the individual self builder will not face Affordable Housing Contributions or off-site contributions in the future. These would only apply for developments of more than ten homes, or more than five and no more than ten in certain designated areas.
With that the meeting ended.
It had been largely good humoured. It had been hugely informative and most agents leaving expressed satisfaction and looked forward to the next forum.
Planners can’t please everybody. If they approve an application they are lauded by the applicant and damned by the objectors. If they refuse it, then vice versa. All planners can do is apply the regulations in as even handed way as possible and FoDDC are certainly trying to do that. They are not alone. There are others. But wouldn’t it be great if those authorities who make life so difficult for those of us trying to build our own homes, could follow their ethos of partnership rather than adversary?