Knowing about the mechanics of planning isn’t enough on its own. For optimum results, what you need is an understanding of how to make the system work to your advantage – in a nutshell, planning tactics.
Even if you have a building designer or planning consultant working with you, awareness of tactical options is important not least so you can discuss or question your adviser’s approach. Bear in mind there are no hard and fast rules and what works in one situation might not in another.
Case study: Contemporary self build goes to committee
When Catherine Oldfield made a planning application for her 108m2 home in Wiltshire (pictured above), she felt her architect's design would sit well in the landscape. "I love Norfolk's distinctive vernacular of black timber agricultural buildings, and there are many similar-looking properties in Wiltshire," she says. "Since my plot was on the edge of the village with open fields beyond, I thought it would be the perfect style for my home."
Catherine didn't see the need for pre-application meetings with the local council, and the scheme came under scrutiny during when she sought planning permission - with the local officer recommending that it go to the planning committee for a decision.
"As soon as I heard about the meeting, I spoke with the local councillor and showed him around the site," says Catherine. "I explained our drawings and the reasons behind the project." Thankfully, the councillor was happy with what she presented and his support meant that planning consent was granted.
Photo: Alistair Nicholls
Good tactics are no substitute for good design and no amount of strategic manoeuvring will overcome a clear-cut policy-based objection. But many planning decisions are quite finely balanced and a sound tactical approach gives such projects the best chance of success.
Local experts vs. outsiders
For those self builders engaging a building designer or planning consultant to help with their project, a crucial early question is whether to go for somebody local, who knows the planning officers personally and is familiar with the particular ways of the local council, or to engage someone from outside the area who can bring objectivity. Both schools of thought have merit.
If your scheme isn’t likely to be too contentious, then local knowledge might save a little time and money. But a local designer maybe overly inclined to cater to the whims of the planning officer, so as not to cause upset.
The ‘objective outsider’ is perhaps better placed to ascertain whether a particular request from a planning officer is reasonable and judged not just against local planning policy, but also against wider interpretation of government guidance and appeal decisions. Such a person could be better able to dig their heels in and fight, if that’s what’s needed.
Many self-build projects, be they new-builds or extensions, suffer from constraints on size. So, is it better to start off with something a bit bigger than you want and then be seen to compromise, or start small and work up?
Some builders and developers subscribe to the ‘start big’ approach. Scaling down in response to requests from a planning officer makes the officer feel they are being effective. The problem with this method is that you’ve got to defend the indefensible to start with, and so conduct negotiations from a position of weakness.
Planning professionals tend to favour the opposite approach. Start with something you’re pretty sure the planners will approve. Get permission for it, then try to build on it.A ‘marginal’ increase in size can be difficult for planners to resist. They’ve then got to articulate precisely why, for example, an additional metre in the depth of the house or 300mm extra height is so harmful that permission should now be refused.
Dealing with objections
What’s the best way to deal with neighbours, the parish council and other potential objectors? Engage with them at the start in a spirit of co-operation and compromise, or slam in an application two days before Christmas in the hope they’ll be too busy to notice it?
If you’re buying a property with planning permission, look at the planning file (online or at the council’s offices) to see whether there were objections and, if so, what was said. If neighbours have concerns that are fair and reasonable, there’s every chance they’ll respond well to an early approach and an offer to discuss plans and address their concerns.
On the other hand, if neighbour objections betray a less than tolerant approach, you might do well to just get your application in without warning them, to minimise the time they have to make mischief. The ‘just before Christmas’ or summer holidays application can backfire though, amid cries of foul play!
Contacting parish councillors, especially if you know someone on the council, is a good plan, particularly if you have neighbours who are irrationally opposed to your plans. Support from a parish council really draws the sting from neighbour objections.
If your application looks destined for refusal, should you withdraw it, try to get it to planning committee or let it be refused? Many applicants are keen to avoid refusal, fearing a blot on their planning record, and often withdraw their application just before a decision is taken. Given that applications are rarely withdrawn unless destined for refusal, the tactic is a touch transparent.
Also, a refusal brings to a head the objections, which must be set out in the reasons for refusal, and brings in tow the option to appeal if further negotiations fail.
Getting an application to planning committee offers an opportunity to get the decision away from the planning officer, albeit into the unpredictable hands of the planning committee members, where a simple majority determines the result.
In the majority of cases, if you can persuade your councillor to ask for the application to go to committee, it will. However, you shouldn’t seek a committee decision unless you have a supportive councillor and are confident that there is not too much local objection. Councillors do go against planning officers’ advice from time-to-time, but the tendency to do this varies a good deal. A little research of your council’s decisions will quickly reveal whether they were taken in line with, or against, officer advice.