An introduction to planning permission

If you are ever considering being a buy-to-let landlord it is likely you will envision at some point making changes to your property in order to enhance its value. Depending on whether you wish to alter, you may need to obtain planning permission. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to go as far as to say that knowing about planning permission is an essential part of any buy-to-let landlord.

In 1948 the right to carry out property development was nationalized. In other words, landowners’ right to build and alter buildings, or to use land or buildings for a different purpose, was taken away by the government. Since that date, anyone wishing to carry out development needs permission to do so.

Permission is given mainly by the local planning authority for the area, which in most cases is the district, borough or city council (collectively referred to as ‘district’ councils). In addition, local government was charged with preparing plans for their areas showing where various kinds of buildings could and could not be built. Thus, the modern comprehensive planning system was born. The system is now overseen by Department of Communities and Local Government in England; the Scottish Government; the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

The planning system was introduced so that property development could be controlled in the public interest. Previously, buildings could be built anywhere, or they could be demolished, and land and buildings could be used for any purpose the owner chose. This was thought to be inefficient and sometimes had harmful consequences. The idea behind the planning system is that new buildings and uses are controlled to ensure:

that incompatible uses are not sited together;
the preservation of important buildings and areas;
the conservation of the countryside and natural environment;
the prevention of urban sprawl;
that the appearance and layout of new development is compatible with existing development;
that resources are not wasted;
that infrastructure can be provided efficiently;
that people’s enjoyment of their properties is protected;
highway safety;
co-ordinated provision of new housing and employment facilities.

However, the planning system is not coercive. It relies on landowners wanting to undertake development. An owner does not have to use land in a particular way just because it is allocated for that use or development. Similarly, even when permission is given, the owner is not compelled to act on it. The system is only concerned with what can be built. It does not deal with how it is built. Structural stability, health and safety, sanitation and so on are dealt with under separate legislation and regulations.

Fundamental to the planning system is planning policy. As well as allocating sites and areas for certain types of development, council development plans contain guidance and standards for buildings and uses, relating to matters such as design, layout, density, garden space, privacy, noise, highway safety, size and mix of buildings, parking and many other issues. This guidance, and standards, is known as planning policy and can be set out in a range of development plan documents. There is a preparation process that development plans must go through and public consultation and opportunities for public comment are built into the procedures.

In addition to local policies, the governments of the UK publish national planning policy documents. Inevitably, these are more broad-brush in nature. Their function is not only to guide decisions on individual development proposals but also to give direction to the development plans drawn up by local authorities. The government indicates what should be taken into account when preparing local plans and, in some areas, the thrust of what they should say. When seeking permission for development, planning law requires the body responsible for making the decision to do so in accordance with formally drawn up local planning policy, unless there are sound reasons for coming to a different conclusion. Therefore, planning policies are the prime consideration in whether planning permission will be given.

Permission is needed for development; consequently there is an application process for seeking that permission. Two types of planning application can be made. First, there are ‘full’ or ‘detailed’ applications. These show all aspects of the proposal and are specific about precisely what would be built, what alterations would be made or what use would be made of land or buildings. Second, there are outline applications. These are made to establish, in principle, whether a building can be built, leaving some or all details of the scheme to be determined subsequently. Outline applications can only be made for buildings not for changes of use, including conversions. The details of the building and site layout are called ‘reserved matters’, because they are reserved from the outline application. Another type of application is then made for the approval of reserved matters within the scope of the original outline permission. Once they have been approved, the outline and reserved matters together are the equivalent of a full planning permission.

Although planning permission is supposed to be obtained for development before it takes place, inevitably building work and changes of use happen without the necessary consent. In these circumstances, an application can be made for permission after the event. This is generally referred to as ‘retrospective’ planning permission.

There are various other applications which can be made after planning permission has been granted. Conditions are attached to permissions and there is a procedure for applying to remove or vary conditions. In certain circumstances, this type of application can be used to make changes to the design or layout of an approved scheme. There is a separate procedure for making very minor changes to a planning permission, called a non-material amendment. One condition attached to a planning permission is a time limit within which to begin the development permitted; this is usually three years for full planning permission (five years in Northern Ireland and Wales). Applications to extend the duration of planning permission are often referred to as ‘renewals’ although they are, technically, new applications.

Of course, not all planning applications are successful and the system includes an appeals process. Appeals are made to central government bodies: the Planning Inspectorate in England and Wales, and the Planning Appeals Commission in Northern Ireland.

The appeals system in Scotland is a little different. Appeals against decisions taken by council officers are decided by a group of elected councillors. Appeals against decisions taken by the council’s planning committee are made to the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals.

Appeals can be made when a council refuses permission, fails to make a decision within set time periods, or grants planning permission subject to conditions which the applicant wishes to vary or remove.

Appeals provide the opportunity for the merits of a proposed development to be considered by an independent inspector (reporter in Scotland, commissioner in Northern Ireland), free of local politics. Appeal decisions, and the interpretations they contain, are supposed to be taken into account by councils when deciding planning applications. Thus the appeals system is intended to keep a check on councils and to provide some consistency in decisions between councils.