Understanding Planning – the Application and the Language
PUBLISHED: 14:36 26 September 2014 | UPDATED: 16:46 12 February 2015
Plotting and planning: how to understand the world of planning – with a little help from professional friends.
I have to start this month’s musing by giving the readers a proviso: whilst I work in the day-to-day world of property, I am not in our Planning Department. I thought that because I am immersed in all things property on a daily basis, I would absorb knowledge purely by osmosis: as you will see, this was – and is – sadly not the case.
I will freely admit that starting this article filled me with trepidation. The planning world seems to be to be governed by people who speak a completely different language. When I started trawling through Planning Portals and speaking to experts, some part of me shut down with a dread that was nudging into fear – and I am not even contemplating a planning application. I just felt so totally ignorant.
I had recently sat at the back of a presentation on Planning, and honestly, I barely understood a word. I hasten to add this is not because I am not blessed with little brain, but more because I started the session by reading my “Planning Acronyms crib sheet” and was horrified at just how little I knew. NPPF’s, PPW’s, LDF’s, CS’s, AAP’s, SA’s, PIFOSD – a tiny snapshot of the language I’d have to understand if I was ever to need planning services and I was utterly lost. I am not embarrassed to say I felt just a tad out of my depth. I suspect that most people, when faced with the maze that is the planning world, would admit to feeling the same way.
However, as I looked around the room, to my amazement, I saw everyone else nodding sagely, and I had a “light bulb moment”: I didn’t need to understand the words of wisdom that were going on around me - because those who needed to know really did get it. That was what the professionals were for. If I asked the right person the right questions, they could guide me through what I needed to understand.
You cannot turn on a screen, or walk into a newsagent without being aware of the many property build programmes and glossy magazines covering building and renovating. They have advice on whether you should move or improve, and should you maximise space or value. Is it, in fact, cheaper to move or cheaper to plan? Are you replacing or extending? Can you convert the unsightly shed at the bottom of the garden to make the den of your dreams? Are you changing the fundamental use of a building, or of an entire area? Are you allowed to cut down the tree that blocks the light at the front of your house? Will you fall foul of the Authorities, the neighbours and the Parish Council if you put up a satellite dish? Do you need building regs, surveys, an architect and a builder as well as a planner? Do you even need permission, or are you covered by Permitted Development? Come to that, what is Permitted Development? If you call the Planning Office, will you understand the intricacies of what is being said?
Historically, most of us probably remember the days when your Planning Permission for a small extension was probably going to be refused for completely spurious reasons, whilst a seemingly terrifyingly ugly concrete block would sail through the planning channels with ease. However, the planning world is currently very “pro” development – and Government policy is for the planning world to be much more flexible. For a change, it means that they might actually be on your side…
In order to really get to grips with the subject, I thought I should set myself a fictitious planning project. I would contemplate adding a dormer window to my imaginary house, and research it on line. I found a great site (http://www.planningportal.gov.uk/permission/house) with a very clear 3D interactive property, with pop-up menus for all sorts of projects – solar panels, chimneys, garages, decking, extensions (1 and 2 storey), ground source heat pumps – you name it, it covers it. I hovered over the dormer window and up popped the text advising that I click through to the main planning portal as it would be covered within “loft conversions”. Here, my ignorance began to catch up with me: from that page alone were a further 6 click through pages – and the first one of these was a 48 (yes 48) page document on Permitted Development. One paragraph down was a hyperlink – which gave me a further page of click through links, onto yet another page with 20 amendments to the laws, stored as yet more hyperlinks, which in turn had chapters, subsections, footnotes, amendments – have I lost you yet?
I back tracked and ended up looking at the page for Lawful Development Certificates – maybe this would be easier. There were 5 links, including a video tutorial, and an 8 page Guidance Note with 17 more hyperlinks to helpful pages and notes and laws.
I am not saying that any of this isn’t incredibly helpful – in fact I am sure you can find everything you need on the Planning Portal. It’s just that I did not know what I needed and was becoming more and more confused at each directive. Everything seemed useful, and worse, everything seemed necessary!
I did learn three things: one, I have a new healthy respect for those involved in the planning world; two, I still felt I would need a degree in Planning to get my dormer window through the system! Three, if I ever started a real project, I’d get a professional to help out - but would I need an architect, a builder, a planning officer - and a translator?
I ended up chatting to the Planning expert in our office – who is qualified in this “other world” - and told her at the outset that she would need to have a conversation that would be treating me as a complete novice. She had some top tips: firstly, phone your planning office to get general advice before you start. Formal pre-application advice is advisable – it can save you cash and heartache in the long run. For small projects, you can employ an architect or local builder who is capable of producing plans and of applying for planning permission on your behalf – but she stressed that you will need to make sure that they fill in the right forms correctly! For a serious project, you need a serious planner who can talk the planning talk. Chat to your neighbours – and don’t worry if they don’t all agree with you: it’s not the end of the world, or of your application! Don’t forget to talk to your Parish Council – they do have influence, so get them on board. Local knowledge of the Local Authority and the area is vital.
Once your planning application has been submitted, be proactive – don’t harass the planning officer, but keep in touch. Be aware that you might need to complete more than just a planning application form – depending on what you’re doing, you might need surveys for highways, ecology, trees, topographical, heritage… and those costs all mount up. Though obviously you need enormous stores of patience as any application will take time, a great piece of advice she gave me was to submit your application in the Spring or Summer because if you need an ecological survey, that is when it will need to take place: you don’t want your project decision held up for nearly a year because everyone has to go hunting for the newts and bats!
I have come to the end of my small piece of research – and of my article – feeling faintly exhausted. But I am also strangely liberated… I haven’t come out of the endless pages of expertise feeling like an expert, but I do know for sure that I’d be employing one!
You see – I do have a plan.
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