How to beat the bu­reau­crats

Ap­ply­ing for plan­ning per­mis­sion can be fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties – even if you call in the pro­fes­sion­als, says An­gela Per­tusini

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Best-laid Plans -

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

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