The news has reached me from Virginia Water that Sir Cliff Richard is having trouble with his conservatory. He has been ordered by Runnymede Borough Council’s planners to pull down the £30,000 structure because it was – you guessed it – put up without planning permission.

When he purchased the conservatory in 2006, the suppliers told him that it didn’t need planning permission. It was only when he tried selling the house this year that the error came to light. No one had complained, or even noticed, in the meantime.

Right now he’s appealing against the decision, but I wouldn’t rate his chances too high. He’s up against the complex web of regulations known as Permitted Development (PD) rights. These define what, and what does not, require planning permission. PD rights were never that easy to understand, but last year they were ‘improved’ — only for any clarity in the old system to be replaced by ambiguities.

But what of Sir Cliff’s conservatory? It’s around 5m x 4m. That’s big, but not that big. Under the old system of PD rights you were allowed to extend a detached house by up to 15% of its existing volume, or by 70m3, whichever was the greater. It is almost certain that Sir Cliff’s conservatory would have fallen within these limits, hence the advice he was given by the conservatory supplier. (Though it seems unlikely that it would meet the new ‘improved’ PD rights test — but that’s another story.)

However, Sir Cliff’s problem wasn’t that the conservatory didn’t meet the old PD rules. It was that he’d had his PD rights removed and hadn’t realised. You see, Sir Cliff had been doing what a lot of selfbuilders have done over the years. The site was originally home to a clapped-out bungalow, which he had bought, pulled down and replaced with a new house. And like most self-builders, he wanted as much house as possible and had got involved in a planning wrangle with the Borough Council about just how much bigger that could be. The site is in open countryside and Runnymede, like all councils, has strict planning policies on the size of replacement dwellings. ‘Thirty per cent bigger, no more’ was its mantra, and Sir Cliff maxed out on this when he put in his application for a replacement dwelling. The planners duly granted permission but removed the PD rights from the new house at the same time. Their logic would be: Sir Cliff had used up the PD rights on the old bungalow to get his larger house; therefore, there is no way that this new house should have any PD rights of its own. PD rights are not a moveable feast: once you’ve eaten them up, they’re gone.

Now, Sir Cliff may have known about this withdrawal of PD rights, but the chances are he didn’t understand exactly what it meant. Or, like a lot of people, probably thought it applied to extensions but not conservatories. And when someone comes along and says, confidently, that a conservatory of such and such a size does not require planning permission, it would be very easy to believe them. And most of the time they’d be right. But not here.

Technically he doesn’t look like he’s got a leg to stand on, but he’s got common sense on his side. It’s cases like this that end up making planning law look petty and venal, and make us lose respect for planners and the system they seek to impose. If they can force Sir Cliff to pull down his £30,000 conservatory, then what chance do you or I have? Instead of wanting to work with planners to promote good design and bright ideas, we go into bunker mentality, working out ways to outwit them.

And the planners are just as bad. Instead of turning a blind eye to the likes of Sir Cliff, they have become obsessed with the regulations set in front of them, regarding cases such as this as ‘results’.

The more antagonistic it gets, the more mistakes like this are going to get made because planners and citizen builders are going to get increasingly wary of one another. As the song goes — “It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore.”

New Permitted Development Rights

Conservatories are treated like any other ‘extension’, and under new PD rules – introduced on 1st October 2008 – can be added without planning permission, subject to a number of conditions. See planningportal.gov.uk for further information.

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