10 Common Planning Permission Pitfalls and how to avoid them

Much of what people know about planning permission comes from the media such as the programme Grand Designs, the experience of friends and family, or from objecting or would-be-objecting to a neighbour’s plans.

Of the process – and the cost – many actually know very little, and the wealth of information available on the internet can be a little daunting. It’s hard to know where to start, let alone where you’ll end up and what you’ll go through to get there.

Businesses have more to consider than residential owners, when what you do in a building is as monitored as the physical changes you make.

Without specialist knowledge and with an excess of enthusiasm, it’s easy to make mistakes in the planning process.

Here we introduce some of the common pitfalls when dealing with planning permissions.

1. Do you need planning permission?

First of all, consider whether you actually need planning permission at all. Most areas (conservation areas excluded) benefit from a ‘Permitted Development Order’ (PDO), which means that changes of a certain size or height, or distance from neighbours, do not require planning permission. The rules can be found on the planning portal website but it’s important to look at them carefully and perhaps consult a professional.

If a property has already been extended this might prevent further changes under a PDO. Recent legislation also means that in many areas properties used as offices can be converted to residential under a PDO – although discussion with the council may still be required.

2. Avoid the DIY trap

Do-it-yourself has its place, but the rule to remember is to stay within your skillset. Often it amounts to a false economy to have a go yourself. Consider a tiled wall that slopes, or a door that won’t close. This is no less true when applying for planning permission, which involves certain stipulations, as well as local considerations, technical requirements and possibly specialist knowledge.

‘Having a go’ at the application may be cheaper in the short term, but it may result in a failed application, or with conditions attached that compromise your plans. There are professionals who can assist, for example:

Designers. These will not only maximise the potential use of space but will be working with planning considerations in mind.

Architects. As above, but they will also be able to draw up the necessary plans, especially where the works involve structural changes.

Planning consultant. A planning consultant, particularly a local one, will be familiar with the developments that have been granted permission in the vicinity – and more importantly, the ones that haven’t. They will also be able to help you address areas of your application that might elicit objections from the council, local bodies such as Highways, or neighbours, in order to resolve any issues before they are raised. Planning consultants can also be useful if you have to appeal a decision.

In fact, if you use the above services, you probably don’t need to worry about most of these points.

3. Can you really afford the investment?

There is no point in successfully obtaining planning permission for works that ultimately will prove too expensive to carry out properly. It’s difficult to budget for building works when you’re not an expert in that area.

One option is to obtain a builder’s estimate. It’s not a quote for works, but should give you an idea of how much is involved. Then add 20%. Contingency is always required for items not taken into account and latent problems that only become apparent when the diggers start digging. Also, of course, take into account any ancillary fees, such as professionals’ fees, consents planning and building regulation fees.

4. Adhere to the rules and instructions

Planning permission and the process of obtaining it has evolved over many years. Councils may have different considerations, requirements and restrictions, and a chat with one of the planning officers will always be useful. The forms accompanying the application will need to be filled in properly, accurately and comprehensively.

Every application, from a two-storey extension to a full housing development, will need:

  • A location plan – obtainable from, for example, the Land Registry or from the deeds
  • The existing and proposed site layout
  • Existing floor plans and elevations and corresponding proposed ones
  • Proposed sections
  • External details such as doors, windows, drainage, roof tiles, render.

Faults and incomplete details may lead to a rejected or failed application, or extensive to-ing and fro-ing which is costly in terms of time and money.

5. Planning permission is not the only permission you need

It’s easy to get carried away with the project at hand, however, before planning permission is even applied for – and ideally before any money is spent on professionals – consider who else might need to give you permission for any works or change of use.

If your property is leasehold, it is likely that permission from a landlord or its agent is required. This is easily forgotten in the case of a long-term leasehold house, for example, where the landlord is largely absent other than an annual collection of nominal rent.

If there’s a clause in the lease that prevents alterations without permission, then consent should be sought. This can be an expensive business as landlords will be aware of the importance of the project and may wish to capitalise on your desperation.

If you go ahead anyway without consent, not only will this cause problems when you come to sell the property, but retrospective permission can be much more expensive to obtain from a landlord than permission in advance – because the landlord knows you need it.

Make sure you check the deeds, even if your property is freehold there may be restrictions (restrictive covenants) in the deeds preventing certain changes to the property. This ranges from properties 200 years old to new build properties.

If you’re unsure about any restrictions that might be present concerning your property, arrange to visit your solicitor who will be able to advise you. Often a quick scan of the deeds is all that will be required.

6. Change of use is no exception

It may be tempting where businesses are concerned, particularly small ones, to not allow planning permission to stand in the way of the perfect space, particularly if it feels the changes and/or occupation of the property are likely to be overlooked. It also may be tempting to persuade oneself that one’s business has not changed the nature of one’s home, for example, when in fact the child-minding business has become more like a nursery.

Care needs to be taken and complicated rules taken into account when dealing with use classes. A café owner may find that they have to grill all their meat and roast all their vegetables for their sandwich fillings off the premises (i.e. at home) because the use class of their leased premises does not allow food to be cooked on-site. The last thing a business needs is a visit from the planning enforcement officer and a breach of the terms of the lease. No premises means no business.

7. Don’t change your mind

Once the planning application has been submitted, it can be difficult to make changes, and even harder once it’s been approved. Anything other than minor changes might require a whole new application. So make sure you check and double check before submitting, not after.

8. You can’t get away with not having planning permission

While there is legislation in place that, in certain circumstances, mean action cannot be taken for works carried out over a number of years ago, this is not the situation you want to find yourself in. There is no guarantee your works will fall into this category, and there are stories of planning enforcement to be found in the media or on the grapevine, from dormer windows having to be removed to whole properties having to be demolished. And while you may live or work happily in a property without planning permission in place, the last thing you want when you move on – whether selling the property or at the end of a lease – are questions being asked and delays being caused – or even claims of damages by a landlord – arising from lack of appropriate consent. Solicitors (especially the other party’s solicitors) can be hard to satisfy when it comes to dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

Indemnity insurance is possible, but makes some owners and lawyers uncomfortable, while retrospective planning permission is far from guaranteed – and can invalidate or prevent the obtaining of indemnity insurance.

9. Don’t forget building regulations

The flip side of the planning permission coin is building regulations. It would be rare where planning permission is required not to also have to comply with building regulations. These deal largely with internal changes and energy efficient measures as well as gas and electrical works. These will also need to be signed off, often long after planning permission has been done and dusted.

It is vital not to forget the final signing-off for building regs purposes. It’s much harder to get retrospective building regulation approval, particularly where the site hasn’t been visited mid-job and where structural works such as RSJs need to be assessed.

10. Letting your permission lapse

Planning permission will last for a fixed number of years and can be passed on to future buyers. If you are planning on carrying out the works, don’t let the date pass you by. There is no guarantee that the permission will be re-granted or extended, particularly if legislative or policy changes have been introduced in the meantime, perhaps in relation to the ratio of residential property to business premises in a particular area, or where restrictions have been imposed on the number of houses of multiple occupation in ‘student’ areas.


Eugene O’Sullivan, is a commercial property expert and Director at Morgan Pryce – London office search, negotiation and project management agents who act exclusively for tenants.

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