The lockdown measures implemented to help combat the spread of Covid-19 have led to sizeable changes within planning departments. Case officers are working from home and site visits have been suspended, factors which could understandably deter homeowners from submitting new applications for projects.
But could this actually be the best time to apply for planning permission to build an extension, or remodel a home?
Delays responding to major project applications have been observed, and some applications have reportedly become harder to process due to planning committees being unable to meet in person and determine applications in the normal way (although virtual committees have taken place in recent weeks). This means that planning officers, in some instances, have more time to focus on smaller applications.
Aspiring extenders and remodelers across the UK could yet make the most of this situation, so we asked homebuilding experts if now is in fact the optimal time to apply to remodel or build an extension.
Do Planning Officers Have More Time Available?
Planning committees normally have to meet in person to discuss major projects, reviewing any objections or problems with an application. Despite the launch of virtual committees, experts agree that there is likely to be delays in some decisions.
“These delays could leave planners with more time to determine minor applications, including most homeowner applications,” says Michael Holmes, director of content at Homebuilding & Renovating. “Most minor applications are dealt with under delegated powers and so do not go to planning committees.”
Paul Testa from Paul Testa Architecture agrees that the possible delays favourably impact those applying for smaller projects. Testa told Homebuilding & Renovating: “What we are hearing is that generally for big schemes getting planning permission is less clear-cut, but for smaller schemes like extensions and remodels, case officers don’t have many consultees to deal with.
“Planning officers aren’t able to deal with their normal consultees in the same way, so they’ve actually got a bit more time to be empowered to make decisions quickly, to clear the smaller jobs off their desk.
“Providing highways issues aren’t a factor, then now is the best time to submit a planning application in most locations.”
Merry Albright, Creative Director at Border Oak Design & Construction, adds that planning officers could be incentivised to approve smaller schemes.
“Extensions and remodelling applications should be taking less time to review because the government has issued advice saying that these are the applications that should be going through,” she told Homebuilding & Renovating. “Unless there is a specific reason for an applicant being rejected, right now there’s no reason for an officer to delay these applications.”
Holmes urges caution, however. “For homeowners, this could be a double-edged sword, as case officers with a reduced workload could pay greater scrutiny to even minor applications.
“Moreover, the reality for most planners is that they have been hugely understaffed and overstretched in recent years, so a reduced workload would just mean a more manageable workload.”
What Should Extenders and Remodelers Do?
The first thing you should do, Albright says, is look at whether you definitely need formal planning approval. There are many changes you can make using Permitted Development, which grants rights to enable homeowners to undertake certain types of work without the need to apply for planning permission.
“You don’t always need planning permission to extend. If you’re right at the beginning of the process, investigate whether you need formal approval. There are lots of things you can do without need to file an application,” she says.
If you require planning permission, Albright urges all applicants to be helpful and proactive with your planning officer.
“Be as helpful as you can. One would imagine on smaller applications that case officers would be less likely to scrutinise, but if it’s all they’re working on then they have more time to review it. We’ve had a lot more phone calls from planning officers asking us for more information, such as ‘can you send us this photograph?’, which normally they don’t have time to do.
“You might need to email and phone your case officer and enquire about any problems and how you can help. Keep applying pressure if you haven’t heard anything back.”
What Problems Could You Face?
With site visits suspended and case officers working from home, local authorities’ planning departments have been appreciably affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Holmes says that, on a general basis, “I am finding, and hearing, that it is taking longer than usual to get certain applications registered, probably due to staff being quarantined and not immediately set up for home working.
“I have also heard of some authorities not accepting any new applications whilst they clear the backlog.”
Albright states that, for new applicants, filing a new application ultimately depends on your planning department and the case officers involved.
“The government has been clear though that planning departments should find innovative ways to review applications, even if it’s done a slightly different way,” she said.
These alternative ways of working are wide-ranging. For example, a site visit is usually made by a case officer to review the application after the consultation period of 21 days, but under lockdown these visits are not happening and applicants are being advised to submit photographs to provide officers with as much information as possible.
Testa added that good quality photos were vital in his firm securing a recent approval. “We had one approved last week that was two weeks early, which seemed a bit tricky at first because the council couldn’t do a site visit, but because of the photos that we sent, suddenly it was done.”
Holmes added: “I expect Google Earth and Street View are playing a more important role in development control than ever.”
Meanwhile, planning notices (which are undertaken by local planning authorities to ensure a formal period of public consultation prior to a decision being made on an application), are usually updated by council employees or contractors, but some councils are not putting up site notices about the status of applications during lockdown.
Holmes and Albright both suggest that the method of publicising planning applications during lockdown could be changing, and these new routes could subsequently speed up applications.
“Under lockdown I have heard of notices being mailed out to applicants and owners to put out to display, and parish councils can too play a role in this,” said Holmes.
Albright added: “There are other ways of publicising planning applications. It could be through community websites or through planning officers approaching parish councils or their clerks who often have more knowledge about the area. If you can get notices up, people will see them.”
Holmes concludes that local authorities will generally want to approve small applications to help stimulate the economy, and this is a primary benefit of applying for permission now if you want to remodel or build an extension.
“What is for certain is that the whole of the UK will need to do all it can to generate economic activity to rebuild the economy. Home improvement projects could play a big part in this.”