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Guest Blog: How Can Small-Scale Property Developers Succeed at Achieving Planning Permission?

By Ritchie Clapson, propertyCEO

Planning is currently hitting the news headlines as we hear more about the government’s plans to update the existing planning system, devised in the 1950s.

The changes so far are promising start,  although there is still a long way to go. So what does this mean for small-scale developers?

For example, as small-scale developer if you want to change the use of a building there are now Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) to help you. 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.

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.

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. So, my first piece of 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 share my second piece of advice. When it comes to mastering the dark art of gaining planning approval, you should use an expert planning consultant. Planning consultants have dedicated their professional careers to the art and science of navigating this country’s planning rules and 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.

But what if you’re in a position where you have no option but to apply for full planning permission? Let me share with you my top five tips for making it less likely that you’ll get that dreaded planning refusal notice.

Be thorough

Planning departments are massively under-resourced, yet they’re required to assess planning applications within eight weeks (13 weeks for larger projects). What happens if your application has reached week seven 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, tree survey, parking survey, contamination survey, or any one of about a hundred different surveys they could ask for, which effectively stops the eight-week countdown clock and puts the ball back in your court? You can probably guess the most likely outcome.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Navigating the planning system in this country is rarely straightforward, but there are things you can do that will make it easier. My advice is to make good use of Permitted Development Rights to reduce the planning risk and enjoy seeing your next small-scale development project take shape.