After years of searching, you find an idyllic and picturesque plot of land somewhere out in the countryside. You feel it is the ideal place to build your dream home — but the local authority has other ideas. So what makes a plot of land suitable for a self-build, and which issues work against it?
It is true to say that location is critical in choosing a site, because you need to take into account all of the planning pitfalls — which can be numerous.
The first thing to establish when looking at any site you think could be a potential plot is whether or not it is inside the local ‘Development Boundary’. In order to protect the open countryside from indiscriminate development, local policy planners draw this imaginary line around towns and villages. Effectively, planning policy restricts development to those sites within these defined boundaries. If your site lies outside this boundary and you are not planning on redeveloping an existing dwelling, converting an old barn or building a property to serve an agricultural need, then the chances are that you are unlikely to receive planning permission.
Once you have found your plot, within the Development Boundary, the principle of development is basically already established — subject to the proposal meeting an array of specific planning criteria.
Never underestimate neighbours! Over the years I have found that it’s useful to get your ducks in a row first. Establish a rapport with neighbouring occupants, but before you discuss your plans with them make sure that you have thought everything through. Keep in mind the need to consider the siting of the building, its size and design — it is the site context that is important. Planning authorities will always look at the impact on neighbouring properties. You can assess this by looking for natural screening such as trees and hedges and whether you can use them in the overall scheme. Never take a mature hedge out unless you are absolutely desperate for space.
At the design stage, give consideration to the way in which windows in your proposals overlook neighbouring gardens or windows: any building work should not be overbearing upon them, block out their light or affect their amenity. As a general rule of thumb, a 21-25m distance is normally given from principal window to principal window, i.e. a main living room of a property. There is often design guidance criteria for each authority — I normally check with each authority that I deal with to be sure what their criteria is, as they do differ.
From my experience of local planning authorities, neighbour issues are only given credence in the planning process if the concerns are planning related. I usually find talking to neighbours and understanding their point of view provides an opportunity to negotiate a win-win solution in most cases. You will not win every argument, but talking always helps.
I once had a case where we discovered that a site, which was going through the conveyance process prior to purchase, had no legitimate legal access. My client had asked the question about the likelihood of achieving planning. As soon as I looked at the site and investigated matters further I discovered, via solicitors and the highway authority, that the site was land locked with no formal legal vehicular access.
This example hopefully demonstrates that it is important when you are looking at plots to ensure that you have a legal right of access or ownership of access to your plot, and that your plot has appropriate access from the highway. This usually means that you will need to check with the highway authority that they are satisfied with the physical size and shape of the access. It is fair to say that these types of technical issues can be resolved, either by improving the access or creating a new access in a position that is in accordance with Highway Safety Guidelines. Sometimes you cannot solve these difficulties because the land you might need forms part of a ransom strip, so always check that the extent of the land you are buying provides adequate access.
A major theme currently within planning is ‘sustainability’. If your site is close to public transport links, such as bus stops, or can be easily accessed on foot or by bike from local amenities, then this is a good point to promote when you apply for planning permission.
In a nutshell, highway issues can work both for and against you in terms of securing planning permission. Always ensure you tackle highway issues early on and check out how the local highway authority will view development of a plot at the same time as you investigate whether you will receive support from the local planning authority — it can be an expensive mistake not to.
It is no surprise that areas with beautiful landscapes are considered to be attractive places to live. However, these areas also have specific constraints afforded to them. The main landscape and conservation designations include Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, land covered by an Article 4 Direction, or a Conservation Area. Within these areas, specific consideration must be given to the impact of the development on the site and the wider setting within the locality.
Your planning application must be well presented; it needs to address all the policy issues related to the constraints. For example, if the site is in a Conservation Area or the conversion you are proposing involves a listed building, then good design and a sensitive scheme will be required — deliver that and you will be more likely to carry the conservation officer with you through the negotiation process. If the site is close to or contains a listed building, then the chances are that a new property may harm the setting. I would certainly say that these are the higher risk sites, likely to cause you more trouble — so bear this in mind when bidding for this type of land and allow a larger budget, as the planning process could take much longer as these types of scheme are inevitably more complex.
There were many parts of the country badly affected by the aftermath of the summer’s torrential rain that has again highlighted the problems associated with building on or near to floodplains and watercourses. The Environment Agency has useful information regarding flood zones.
Flooding can be a major constraint, which often leads to planning applications being refused and higher planning costs due to the need for ‘Flood Risk Assessments’ and specialist advice. The situation is going to get a lot worse over coming years in terms of regulating developments in flood zones. On a general point, my advice is to do the background research that identifies all the planning issues and then decide whether the site will work for you in terms of viability.
How long should it take for a decision to be made?
For planning applications for extensions and single dwellings, the Government target for local authorities is eight weeks. If the application process runs relatively smoothly then you can expect a decision before that date; however, unexpected problems or objections can push this timescale up. From experience, entering into detailed preapplication discussions with the local authority before submission will save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Using this approach, I establish early on in the process what the planners’ views are and whether it will be necessary to reconsider the submitted scheme or seek further negotiation.
What is the basic form of a planning application?
Each site has different requirements but generally an application should include five copies of application forms, the signed ownership certificate, a site plan, block plan and elevations of both the existing and proposed sites, a Design and Access Statement and the correct fee.
A full application for a new home will cost £385 in England, £330 in Wales, and £319 in Scotland. For improvements to existing houses the fees reduce considerably, in the £100-200 region (£172 for an extension/renovation in England).
What do I need planning permission for? And What is Permitted development?
Anything that creates a new house, either by building from scratch or a subdivision, needs planning permission. With extensions and outbuildings it is dependant on the level of Permitted Development (PD) rights afforded to or still remaining on a property and the satisfaction of several other criteria within the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO). In most cases, when a house is built it has a PD allowance of 50 or 70m³. The level afforded to each property is dependant on its type and location. Properties in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Conservation Area or those that are terraced, have 50m³. The majority of others have 70m³. Once they have been used up, further development needs permission, however small.
At the last Homebuilding & Renovating Show, I was asked on more than one occasion, “Can I fill half my garden with outbuildings?” In simple terms, you can erect buildings on land around your house without permission. These buildings can include sheds, greenhouses, swimming pools, ponds, summerhouses, tennis courts etc — but you will need planning permission if more than half the area of the land around the original house would be covered by additions or other buildings. The original house means the house as it was first built or as it stood on the 1st July 1948 (if it was built before that date). Remember: you may not have built an extension, but a previous owner might have.
There are numerous other criteria, such as the need to be sure that what you want to build would not be nearer to any highway than the nearest part of the ‘original dwelling house’, unless the property was at least 20 metres as extended from the highway. The highway includes all roads, footpaths, bridleways, and byways if they are public rights of way. In cases of PD it is worth approaching the planning authority, as most local authorities will give you an informal opinion of whether your proposal meets their policies. This would not be binding but can point you in the right direction.
You may be aware that the Government has proposed changes to the GDPO so that small householder developments, such as extensions and conservatories, can be built without permission. The changes will do away with PD limits based on cubic content by replacing them with maximum size and location criteria. Also, changes are proposed to make it easier for householders to install small wind turbines and solar panels on their properties. The results of the consultation will not be published for several months, but nothing is likely to come into force until at least 2009.
Didn’t the Government make changes to planning applications recently?
From April 2008, the National Standard Planning Application Form (1APP) will become the only official method of submitting a planning application for the majority of planning permissions, including works to listed buildings. The form will be common practice for local planning authorities in England and it is aimed to make life easier for the general public and planning professionals. All other changes are currently at consultation stage.
I’ve seen a barn but it only has permission for a holiday let, what is the reason behind this and what are my chances of upgrading it?
I am sure we have all seen that idyllic barn surrounded by beautiful open countryside, ripe for conversion. However, planning policy has been evolved over the years to stop the gentrification of these humble buildings because it is the residential paraphernalia – the domesticity of the building and the associated curtilage – which is nearly almost always resisted.
The restriction on the ‘use’ of a barn conversion as a holiday let is to prevent permanent residential occupation. This is normally because the property is in open countryside outside any settlement boundary and therefore contrary to planning policy. Restrictions are governed by either a condition or perhaps a legal agreement. Legal agreements can be removed and conditions can be varied or removed, dependent on the issues involved. In my experience, however, I have only ever witnessed a few cases where holiday let restrictions have been lifted.
I’m thinking of designing a house myself, will presentation affect my chances?
From personal experience, having worked in both local authority and now as a consultant, I would strongly recommend ensuring that your application drawings and associated application submission are well presented and all the bases are covered. Firstly, if the submission is poor then you will not convince officers, let alone elected members, of the worth of your project. At the end of the day, the drawings are going to be what the local authority bases its decision on and they need to be visually well presented, and clear with appropriate annotation — a north point helps too!
I’ve been given an approval conditional to a section 106 agreement, meaning I have to pay money to my local council. Is this legal and common?
This is both legal and common, so long as the money requested is in direct relation to the development and the site. In terms of smaller developments, the most common agreements would provide a financial contribution for highway improvements to increase road safety. Although the agreements are generally complex, there is often room for negotiation over the sums involved. However, many local authorities have now formally adopted Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs), which identify the likely shopping list of Section 106 contributions they seek. Remember a planning obligation should not simply be imposed: you have the right to negotiate, although this is something that often needs expert experience and can be a lengthy and costly business.
I recently had a case where someone asked me to become involved in the negotiation of a Section 106 relating to the erection of two dwellings. The local planning authority was seeking a contribution for a number of different elements including education. In all cases, where a planning authority is seeking a contribution or the undertaking of the physical provision of something, you must always make sure you know whether there is a local need for it — in this case, the additional spaces at the local school. Very often there is no formal justification. If you discover that this is the case, you can challenge the request. Many people I talk to do not realise that Section 106 obligations cannot be imposed, so you do need to negotiate.
What’s a Design and Access statement, How do I get one and how much will it cost?
These statements have to accompany all planning applications besides householder building works in unprotected areas and changes of use. Statements are used to justify a proposal’s design concept and the access to it. The level of detail depends on the scale of the project and its sensitivity. Most authorities will have guidance notes available to help you but, unfortunately, unless you ensure you have included one in your submission, planning authorities can refuse to register your planning application.
How much does my approval term last?
For a ‘Full’ application (unless otherwise stated) the period would be three years from the day the decision was made. With an ‘Outline’ application you have three years after the decision in which to seek approval of the remaining Reserved Matters and then up to two years after the last Reserved Matter was approved to commence building. It always surprises me how often people allow planning permissions to formally lapse. You can seek renewal and it takes little time to reapply – there is even case law on what constitutes commencement and a number of cases where applicants have dug out foundations to protect their planning permission in perpetuity, intending to finish sometime later. I don’t advocate this approach, but it is useful to understand the process.