Conversion projects offer a superb way to create a unique and characterful home. Buildings suitable for conversion are often in locations, both urban or rural, where it would be impossible to build a new house. Converting an existing structure is also environmentally friendly, as you’re recycling the energy and materials that went into the original building.
But getting planning permission for conversions isn’t always as straightforward as a new build. So, what are the likely planning issues and the best way to deal with them?
When you find a building to convert you must be sure it’s capable of providing the accommodation you want, in terms of number of rooms, room sizes and heights. Particularly if the building is old or listed, scope for substantial internal or external change may be limited.
Remember that planning permission is generally granted for conversion primarily as a means to preserve the property and this can significantly constrain your freedom for design innovation. Check your council’s planning policies that apply to conversions in their Local Development Framework.
Get a structural survey done as soon as possible. Is the building capable of being converted or does it really need rebuilding? Does it need underpinning, a new roof, re-built walls, and so on? Will it be possible to bring the building up to building regulations standards in terms of insulation and natural light? The survey is an essential first step in sorting out a realistic budget for your project.
In cities, towns and villages there are less likely to be restrictions on alterations and additions to existing buildings, but there may well be restrictions on the types of uses that can be lost to conversion. For example, village and neighbourhood shops and pubs, offices in town centres and shops in main retail streets.
Always check in the Local Development Framework what policies apply to the location of your building. If in doubt, get confirmation from a planning officer. Evidence of unsuccessful marketing for a period of six months or a year can be sufficient to overcome policy restrictions protecting the building’s current use.
If you want to undertake a conversion through permitted development, it’s important to be certain that your scheme fits within the rules – which are open to varying interpretation.
Rights to change use from office to residential don’t apply universally, with some councils having opted particular business areas out of their provisions. Other locations and types of property are excluded, including conservation areas and listed buildings.
Changes to residential use from offices, shops and storage uses are subject to a prior notification regime, which is like a mini planning application. This enables the council to check aspects of your project, such as highway safety, flooding and contamination risks. The rights to convert shops are also hedged by a somewhat open-ended proviso that councils can refuse a scheme because it’s undesirable in terms of its impact on retail provision.
With office to residential conversions, and with flats above shops, it’s only internal works to facilitate the conversion that don’t need permission. External alterations that would materially change the appearance of the building will need planning permission. The shop-to-residential rights are more generous, covering external works and even partial demolition.
If your particular proposal doesn’t quite fit the PD rules, it will need planning permission. The presence of a so-called ‘fall-back’ option of an alternative scheme that would be permitted development can be an important consideration in any application. This is forcing councils to grant permission in situations where historically they might have refused (on grounds of loss of business or retail space, for example).
Government planning policy is strongly supportive of urban conversions, but is also committed to making the most efficient use of existing urban buildings. Creating one larger house out of a building could be resisted if there’s actually space for, say, several smaller flats.
Counters to this include showing that the building isn’t suited to being divided up; that parking space is inadequate for more than one unit; that there isn’t enough amenity (garden) space for a number of flats; or that some of the smaller units would have inadequate light or outlook.
Recent revisions to permitted development rights mean that converting agricultural buildings to residential properties is now a good deal easier. These amendments, which came into force in April 2018, permit a maximum of five new houses to be created from existing farm buildings. Previously, planning regulations limited the number to three properties.
Change of use rights, allowing the conversion of storage buildings into residential homes under PD, have also been extended until 10th June 2019.
The rules enabling this kind of conversion opportunity are hedged about with a great many provisos, covered by a ‘prior approval’ procedure, but the key point is that they have ushered in a policy environment that is much more accepting of rural conversions than used to be the case. So even if your scheme does need planning consent (for instance if major changes to the fenestration are required) it is likely to be seen more favourably.
Bear in mind that these PD rights don’t apply in AONBs, national parks and conservation areas – but many council’s policies will allow conversions anyway.
As with urban conversions, some councils insist a rural building be marketed for a period for commercial use, before they’ll consider residential use.
The extent and design of the garden, or ‘residential curtilage’ as the planners call it, comes under close scrutiny in rural conversions. Don’t assume that because a building has a certain amount of land attached to it, or sold with it, that all of that land can automatically become garden.
In some cases the extent of the garden is obvious – an existing courtyard perhaps or area defined by a hedge or wall. Where a new garden has to be created, a well considered landscape plan, retaining the rural character of the site, will help you negotiate with the planning officer the garden area you want.
Don’t expect that you’ll be able to build a garage or other outbuilding once your building is converted. Planners generally impose conditions on the grant of planning permission that prevent future outbuildings or extensions to the main building.
Ideally utilise existing outbuildings if they’re attractive, or offer to remove ugly ones in exchange for better design and more appropriate materials. An open fronted cart-shed is more likely to be acceptable alongside a rural conversion than a more suburban-style double garage with ‘up and over’ doors.
Planning applications for conversions must be made in full, that is, supported by detailed drawings of the building ‘as is’ and ‘as proposed’.
Unless the building is obviously in sound structural condition, a structural survey is likely to be required as well. Employ the services of a designer who is experienced in conversions and, if the building is listed, in dealing with historic properties.
With listed buildings, listed building consent is required alongside planning consent, and drawings have to show in considerable detail how features of it will be preserved. In conservation areas, conservation area consent is needed for anything to be demolished, including things like boundary walls.
Don’t forget that all applications for conversions will need a Design and Access Statement, and many involving listed buildings or buildings in conservation areas will also need a ‘Heritage Asset Statement’, to explain how the ‘heritage asset’ will be preserved.
It’s become increasingly common for councils to ask for ‘bat surveys’ to be undertaken to ensure a building isn’t a roost for bats and, in the case of old barns, for a survey to check for the presence of barn owls. This information, together perhaps with a full ecological survey, might have to be submitted with the planning application. Get specialist help – a note saying ‘I haven’t seen any bats’ won’t do.
Similarly, with rural building conversions, councils often ask for an environmental survey to check for contamination either in the building or potentially affecting the garden area. If required, this needs to be submitted with the application, and accounted for in your budget.
Conversions can be more complex than new builds from a planning perspective, so ensure you take good advice before plunging in and buying a building to convert, unless of course it’s already got permission to convert in the way you’d like. But with the right approach, conversions offer scope to create innovative and attractive living spaces – both urban and rural.
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