If you read the popular press on a regular basis would be forgiven for thinking that today’s town planning system is a much relaxed, even leaky old machine, churning out planning permissions for almost anything, on a whim, and pray to every developer looking to exploit the last vestiges of our green and pleasant land. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, successive governments have sought to streamline town planning over the last 20 years and, in so doing, have inevitably made it more complex, rigid and time-consuming. Such is the law of unintended consequences!
Gone are the days when a simple red line on a plan and a hastily scribbled planning application form would be sufficient for even the most significant of proposals. Gone too are the opportunities to pop in to your local planning department for an informal chat.
This does not mean that planning permission cannot be obtained. It has always been the case that more consents are issued than refusals and a goodly proportion of the latter are subsequently allowed on appeal. In the words of the song, “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it - that’s what gets results”.
First and foremost, you must be pragmatic about your proposed development. Seeking to develop within the Metropolitan Green Belt, over land including a SSSI and involving the clearance of heritage woodland is unlikely to gain much support. You are unlikely to enjoy the rapturous laughter in the planning office as you hand over your application.
Your first port of call should be the adopted Local Plan policies set out by your authority on their planning website. These may be found in a series of Development Plan Documents (DPD’s) and Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD’s) rather than the single Local Plan document we have all come to know and love - I told you it was more straightforward - not!
Identify your property on the Proposals Map, read the policy documents and discover whether there are any environmental or other restrictions pertaining to the site or your project in general.
If you wish to establish both the likelihood of securing consent and also the nature and extent of any application requirements then a Pre-Application Request or “pre-app” is a good way forward, although it will usually require a payment to the Council for the privilege. This is a straightforward request for their initial opinion and a formal written response is usually prepared; although face-to-face meetings can also be arranged, often at an additional charge.
Assuming the planners are not entirely against the proposal the next stage is to work up your planning application, including the preparation of all the necessary supporting information. This is not the time to try and take shortcuts, for any failure to produce the relevant reports, or even have them completed to a satisfactory standard will mean that your planning application may not even pass first muster at the Council offices and will not be “validated”. This means your application either sits in abeyance awaiting the further information or is returned to you in its entirety.
It is in fact quite an achievement nowadays to secure validation on the first attempt and being a cynical old fellow I often think that local authorities use the validation system as a means of controlling the flow of applications to their ever-pressed staff.
A key point to note is that applications that require any environmental input, particularly with regard to protected species, should have regard to the relevant ecological survey periods. For example, an application submitted in December where the presence of bats may be suspected that are not flying until April/May, could throw your application timeline out significantly, unless you undertook a survey at the right time previously. Just because the development site is covered in rubble, weeds, a few old tyres and a shopping trolley or two, never assume it hasn’t gone and got itself ecology. It may well have more than you think!
Helpfully, planning applications can now be prepared and submitted online through the Planning Portal. You can select from a whole range of application types and the system is very helpful in guiding you through the process, calculating the relevant planning application fees and ensuring that you have added all the mandatory plans and documents. There are a range of tips and tricks for using this system which may be the subject of a separate article in due course.
Do bear in mind however that each authority may have its own ‘local list’ of requirements and the level of pedantry associated with those is beyond hair tearing. That’s if you can find the local list on their website in the first place. Good luck with that.
Similarly, once your application is in the system you can monitor it online through the local planning authority’s planning website. Here you will see any consultation responses, objections (and support) and you can react to these accordingly. It is no longer the case that the planning officer will contact you about any particular problems as a matter of course, although most still do. You have to be pro-active in regularly checking the current position.
Something in the order of 80% of planning applications are now dealt with by way of “delegated powers” - that is by the officers themselves, outside of the planning committee. Nevertheless, applications are still referred to the planning committee from time to time and you may have a three-minute window of opportunity to address the councillors. The same opportunity of course is afforded to any objectors.
If you become the proud owner of a planning permission do not simply file it away and fire up the JCB. There may well be conditions attached to the decision which will require a further application for specific approval before any works can commence. Jumping the gun could be an expensive mistake.
Is also important to recognise that the life of planning permissions can no longer be extended as was once possible. Most permissions are granted for no more than three years and this might include the necessary time for approval of conditions and proper commencement of the scheme. The absolute maxim nowadays is “use it or lose it”. Even if you intend making changes, secure the consent, get it underway and then seek alterations.
If you receive a refusal this may not be the end of the world. It depends on the reasons. Try and avoid the temptation to rush straight to appeal. You may be able to amend the scheme in order to achieve a beneficial consent and resubmission could resolve the councils’ concerns.
Planning today is complex and, in many cases, requires far too much technical input for even the most straightforward and menial of proposals. Nevertheless, permissions are still achieved and by approaching matters in a structured and thoughtful way you should prevail. May the force be with you.
Ian Butter FRICS MRTPI
Rural and Urban Planning