How To Navigate The Planning System

You don’t have to flick too far through the newspaper headlines these days to find an article on planning. The government’s plans to overhaul the decades-old planning system have met with what could politely be described as a mixed response. And while there seems to be little consensus on what the perfect solution should look like, the choir is in unison on one point; the current planning process in this country is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Given that the first battle in any war is to rouse sufficient interest in the outcome, it’s good news that planning is, at last, getting some attention. The current system, devised in the 1950s, is outdated, bureaucratic, old-fashioned, time-consuming, and prone to subjective and often politically motivated decision-making.

It’s not helped by the fact that many of the people involved in planning decisions have no formal training in the discipline, nor by the severe lack of funding that local planning authorities receive. For the planning system, it would appear that as Yazz and her Plastic Population once famously put it, the only way is up.

Good news, then, for developers? Well, to cater for those of you for whom Yazz represents the cutting edge, perhaps the Hollies might offer a more realistic perspective; planning reform could prove to be a long, long road, with many a winding turn. A promising start, but not much use if you’re looking to get into small-scale property development in the here and now. But where there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity, as my old PE teacher used to say as we nervously faced the climbing net. So, what can new developers do to navigate the planning system successfully? Here are a few ideas that might help you along.

My first piece of advice (regrettably not given by my old PE teacher) is to go around the obstacle rather than over it. Arguably the most contentious type of planning application involves the change of use of a building. Let’s say you want to change that run-down old commercial building into some fabulous apartments. Each property has what’s known as a use class, and you’ll need planning permission to change a building from commercial use to residential. Will the local planning authority grant you planning permission? Who knows, and you really don’t want to be buying it until you’re sure you can proceed. So, a fraught wait of several months potentially lies ahead of you, then?

Not necessarily. As luck would have it, there’s a superpower on hand to save the day, known as Permitted Development Rights (PDRs). These are rights that the government has created that permit certain changes of use without the need to apply for full planning permission. Most homeowners currently have PDRs to extend their own homes and can often put up a small extension without so much as a by your leave. But PDRs also exist to change the use class of various types of building. So, if you want to change the upper floors of a shop into flats, convert an office to apartments, or turn an old barn into a house, there are PDRs that can allow you to do it, plus many others besides. Most PDRs require you to apply to the council to obtain what’s known as Prior Approval, but this differs significantly from the full planning permission process. For starters, the planning authority can only assess the application against a relatively small number of criteria, plus in many cases they are obliged to respond within a fixed period, typically 56 days (although this is not set in stone, as the council can request an extension).

Better still, the government has recently made changes to the law that introduce a whole raft of new PDRs. Since 1st August 2021, we now have a PDR to convert offices, shops, banks, restaurants, cafes, gyms, light industrial buildings, and several other building types into residential homes. Why have they done this? Well, we have a significant number of brownfield sites in this country that are ripe for repurposing. You only need to look around any of our town centres to see a general decline and an increase in the number of vacant buildings. And with a requirement to build some 300,000 new homes a year, it makes sense for the powers-that-be to incentivise developers to repurpose existing buildings rather than build on green belt land.

No wonder, then, that there’s been such a surge in interest from people keen to get into small-scale development; the size of the opportunity that these new PDRs have just unleashed is unprecedented.

It’s worth pointing out that, while the change of use is likely to be the most contentious planning issue, you’re still going to need to apply for planning permission if you also want to change the appearance of your building, replace the roof, or add windows and doors. However, assuming you do this under guidance from your professional team, this is likely to be non-contentious once the PDR prior approval has been secured. So, my advice is to get up to speed with these new permitted development rights, as well as the older ones. Understand what you can achieve without having to get full planning permission to change the use of a building, and then take full advantage.

But before you do that, let me come on to my second piece of advice, this time courtesy of the late, great Bill Withers; we all need somebody to lean on. And when it comes to mastering the dark art of gaining planning approval, that somebody should be your friendly planning consultant.

As any good CEO will tell you, the secret to being brilliant lies in employing brilliant people. And, as a developer, the only time I want you to reach for a copy of the Town & Country Planning Act is when you’ve got a wonky coffee table. The reason for this is that there are people called planning consultants who have dedicated their professional careers to the art and science of navigating this country’s planning rules and who will therefore be much better at it than you will ever be. Better still, the more imaginative ones can often work minor miracles by weaving together various PDRs and precedents to create viable schemes. After all, every superpower needs a superhero to wield it, and PDRs are no exception.

As a developer, you’ll need to be familiar with planning rules at a high level, but it will be your planning consultant who will nail the details for you. Why is this so important? Well, in development, you’re always looking for an edge that can allow you to pay more for a property or piece of land than the competition. Let’s face it; if you’re the highest bidder, you’re going to have the best chance of securing the deal. And because residential nearly always commands a premium, if you’re able to combine the best use of PDRs with the ability to maximise the number of units you can fit into the plot, then you’re on to a winner.

Given this may be the first time you’ve heard about these PDRs, you might well be thinking that there must be lots of experienced developers out there who already know about this stuff. Why then would you ever be the only party who has this knowledge? Well, you’d be amazed. If you thought that developers constantly review new planning changes looking for opportunities, think again. Most have an existing model they’ve applied very successfully over many projects, and which they look to rinse and repeat. Most are not interested in learning about new planning rights because they don’t need to. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Plus, if you, like them, learn how to find off-market deals, then your competition is automatically dramatically reduced (that’s a story for another day).

So, I’ve told you how to avoid planning permission and hire a superhero to help you maximise every planning opportunity. But what if you’re in a position where you have no option but to apply for full planning permission? Can I offer you any comforting crumbs of advice that could take the sting out of it? Well, since you asked so nicely, let me share with you my top five tips for making it less likely that you’ll get that dreaded planning refusal notice. 

1. Be thorough

Planning departments are massively under-resourced, yet they’re required to assess planning applications within 8 weeks (13 weeks for larger projects). What happens if your application has reached week 7 and it’s still languishing in the planning department’s in-tray? What does the planning department do? Do they rally the troops, muster all hands on deck, and miraculously turn around your application within a week? Or will they write to you on day 55 asking for a bat survey, tree survey, parking survey, contamination survey, or any one of about a hundred different surveys they could ask for, which effectively stops the 8-week countdown clock and puts the ball back in your court? You can probably guess the most likely outcome. I once met a developer who had forgotten to enclose the cheque for the planning application fee. Did he immediately get a phone call or email asking him to send it in? No, he got his planning application rejected after 8 weeks had passed for not enclosing a payment (he’s now quite adept at making sure his applications are 100% complete before he licks the envelope).

So, give some thought to what surveys the planning authority could reasonably request for your project. You have a trade-off here; it costs money to commission a survey, but your architect and planning consultant can advise you on what additional information the planners are most likely to want. Enclosing this with your original application could save you time later on, and also triple-check that your application is 100% complete before you submit it.

2. Submit a high-quality application

Being overworked and underpaid is not likely to make planning officers particularly sympathetic to applications that are poorly written, badly constructed, or difficult to understand. So, make sure that yours is the exact opposite and stands out from the crowd. It may seem overkill, but planning is a people business, and we all know how rational they can be.

3. Know your local Town Plan

All local authorities have one, and it gives details of their local planning policy. It always amazes me how many developers fail to do their basic research and submit plans for something expressly forbidden within the local Town Plan. It’s like asking a policeman if it’s ok to rob a bank. Make sure you know yours inside and out and that your proposed project stays within the rules.

4. Consider the character and street scene

No building is an island, and the planners will judge how your proposed development fits within the context of other buildings in the immediate vicinity and the street scene overall. Does it add to or detract from the street’s character? If your proposed building is three storeys tall and the neighbouring houses are two storeys, expect to be called out on it. Similarly, will your development stick out like a sore thumb or blend in with its neighbours? You need to build ‘in keeping’ with what’s already there.

5. Beware of privacy, access, and light

Another own goal looms if you fail to consider the privacy of both existing neighbouring properties and the units you intend to build. Make sure your new homes don’t overlook your neighbours or each other. This can be challenging when trying to get in as much natural light as possible, so consider using high-level windows or light wells to avoid overlooking. Also, think about how people will access their new homes. Will they have to walk right past someone’s living room window or down a narrow walkway? While all these factors should be considered by your architect and planning consultant, you don’t want to wait until you incur their fees to find out you have a problem. So, make sure you factor these things into your thinking right from the start.

So, there you have it, a few ideas on how to improve your lot, planning-wise. Navigating the planning system in this country is rarely straightforward, but you can certainly do things to make life easier for yourself. My best advice? Use Permitted Development Rights to avoid as much planning risk as possible. After all, if someone’s built you a footbridge, it would be foolish to run across the motorway.