How to beat the bureaucrats
Applying for planning permission can be fraught with difficulties – even if you call in the professionals, says Angela Pertusini
If there is one thing to put people off starting a major home renovation project, it is the thought of getting planning consent. Those faceless bureacrats picking through your plans, tutting over your choice of roof tile before taking out their big rubber “Reject” stamp. Dry, humourless creatures, answerable to no one. The whole process costs a fortune. And every scheme they do let through ends up as a carbuncle on the neighbourhood. And... ach, why bother?
Ron Tate sighs deeply. A planning consultant and a past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), he is familiar with the stereotype. “For many people getting planning consent on their home is one of the most stressful things they can do,” he says. “People regard their homes as their castles and then to have to apply for permission from someone else to do what you want, well...” he trails off. “Planners are seen as the obstacle, but the vast majority of applications for domestic projects are approved.”
The problem for would-be home improvers is that few understand the system and tend to regard it as labyrinthine and weighed against them. Which, according to Hugo Tugman, founder of Architect Your Home (AYH), a firm that specialises in domestic projects, it is. A slightly self-serving AYH survey found that 65 per cent of people interviewed who had undertaken a building project were relieved that they had used an architect or wished that they had used one in order to negotiate their way through the planning stage.
“A lot of people don’t appreciate how complicated doing an extension is,” he says. “They want it to be simple, they think the planning stage should be simple but once they’re up to their elbows they can see the need to have got an architect involved.”
Both Ron and Hugo seem to agree about what the two major planning problems facing the uninformed applicant are. First, many local authority planning departments are facing staff shortages, which means that the case load for each officer has multiplied over recent years. Added to that, there is a statutory obligation to turn around applications in eight weeks, which means that there is little or no time for consultation between planners and homeowners. Plans often don’t get studied until the last minute, by which time it is too late to inform the homeowner of minor amendments that would make them acceptable, and so they are rejected outright.
The second great difficulty is the ticklish subject of permitted development. Put in place to give homeowners some degree of autonomy over minor extensions and alterations to their properties, they carry so many caveats (Will the extension fall to the front of the building? What type of house is it? Has an extension already been made?) that it is worth assuming that you don’t have the rights and it’s not worth schlepping down to the planning department to find out what you can or can’t do.
“It is a difficult area,” agrees Ron. “The problem often arises when someone has extended their house under permitted development and then moves to, say, a flat which doesn’t have these rights at all but the owner assumes that they can carry out the same sort of work.” He is, however, more enthusiastic about receiving help from the local authority: “Most will have guidance notes to help you and many have very good websites with the information you need.”
Clearly, there are some cases in which it is just better to call in the professionals from the off. When Judy and Jon Astley decided to replace the 1970s extension at the rear of their home beside the Thames in Twickenham, they realised that they would need help with the application.
Although in many cases, this work would have come under permitted development, their Georgian townhouse was listed and within a conservation area, which made the process much more complicated. “I could have ended up devoting half my life to it,” says Judy, the author of best-selling novels such as Size Matters and Away From it All. “You can’t imagine how many drawings there are to do.”
Even with help from AYH, it still took a year to gain all the different permissions involved. Unusually, although the couple were granted listed building consent without any problem, their planning application was rejected and had to be redrawn and resubmitted. “I remember the day we decided to do this and I thought, ‘In six months’ time, I’ll have my new kitchen’,” says Judy, laughing at her naivety.
The work was further slowed down because, after the relevant consents were granted, the couple decided to wait for a while before starting the build, in which time changes were made to the energy efficiency part of building regulations, so the whole project needed to be recalculated to provide triple glazing and up to 60cm of insulation in the walls.
Perhaps the worst aspect of applying for planning permission without professional help – and Ron would advise using an RTPI-affiliated planner just as heartily as Hugo would an architect – is the uncertainty it brings.
“Often people know what they want and they go to someone who can draw up the plans for the local authority,” says Ron. “The thing to be slightly wary of is that they may not be qualified to deal with any issues that arise.”
“The whole process is very fraught and unpredictable,” adds Hugo, “Largely speaking, professionals know the rules and what will cause the least problems.”
Architectyourhome www.architect-yourhome.com, 0800 849 8505; Royal Town Planners Institute; www.rtpi.org.uk
So slow: Judy (left) says her kitchen extension took a year to get planning permission