Article By Julian Owen.

approved_planning-300x199It is a fact that innovative or challenging private schemes often get disproportionate scrutiny from planners and the local community when compared to larger projects – making planning permission more difficult to achieve. The main reason for this is that these projects tend to be in nice areas in villages and suburbs and surrounded by existing housing, so they attract more attention. Also many planning departments are wary of taking on a sophisticated, well-funded developer who knows the ropes, but have fewer inhibitions with a private home owner.

If you believe that your application will be controversial, you need to take account of this from the earliest stage of the project. Obviously you will need better design expertise than a normal application and will need more time spent on the process, but there may also be a knock-on effect at the construction stage if you have to promise to use good quality materials or special design features to get your planning approval.

Start by identifying the causes of the controversy. It may be one single issue, or several with each one requiring a separate strategy. It is difficult, but essential to be objective when assessing whether to pursue the application in its original form. If amendments can be made that will improve the chances of approval, it is often wise to make them if possible. Should there be an arguable case for refusal, you have to accept that you may come out at the end of the planning process with nothing. It is not unusual for an applicant to be so convinced they are right that they ignore genuinely good arguments against their scheme, so consider getting some detached professional advice – and listen to it carefully.

Planning departments generally charge for pre-application advice and take several weeks to respond, but it is worth going through this process because it will clarify their likely objections once the application is submitted. Familiarise yourself with the council’s planning policies before making contact, because you will need to present a case that shows how your scheme complies with all of them.

Think carefully how much you reveal to them at this stage. For example, if you know an aspect of the design is going to be controversial you might not show them it straight away, but try to establish the principles in terms of size and scale first, by showing them plans and 3D massing models rather than elevations. Once you have agreement to these overall concepts, you can introduce the more radical elements of the design. At the end of the consultation period, the planning officers should write to you describing which parts of the scheme they believe are likely to be in accordance with policy and which are not. In other words, you will know what you are up against.

Deal with as many of the issues that you think could lead to a refusal as possible, however trivial they may seem. You should also identify any problems that the planning officer has not mentioned and provide all the information that is needed for the application to be properly considered. This is because if the planners want to refuse, they will use a ‘kitchen sink’ strategy, that is throw in as many reasons for the refusal they can come up with, over and above their main concern. This makes a refusal notice more intimidating, because instead of one paragraph stating why they don’t like it, it may run to several pages. Another classic problem is when they wait until about a week before the decision is due and then ask for a specialist report, such as a tree survey, or flood risk assessment. You might be able to get the report completed and submitted before the decision date, but they may threaten exclude it as arriving too late to be properly assessed. This means that you are presented with the choice between withdrawing the application and re-submitting it after the report has been prepared, or allowing the decision to go ahead with a very clear-cut reason for refusal – the lack of a required specialist report. An experienced advisor should be able to help you anticipate this tactic, but equally you will not want to prepare numerous unnecessary and expensive reports. The solution is to try to get the planning officer to give you a definitive list of all information required either before or immediately after the application is submitted.

If there are signs that neighbours and local residents are likely to put in lots of objections, this should be tackled after the scheme has developed enough to show them clearly what your intentions are, but before the design is finalised. It may be possible to amend it to accommodate at least some of their concerns. If it is not, by establishing a dialogue you may re-assure them that you are not a grasping developer trying to ruin the area, but an ordinary person who wants to integrate into the neighbourhood. Meeting people who object strongly to your proposal is not particularly pleasant, but you will at least walk away with a very good idea of the case that they will put against your project. Very occasionally, where there are a lot of objectors, you might consider a presentation to all of them at once. If you take this route, try to get a respected figure such as a local councillor to act as an independent chair to the meeting. A strong public presentation can sway people, especially if you are able to address some of the concerns and make concessions.

Sometimes planners will make a delegated decision and it will not go to the planning committee for consideration. This usually happens if the planners feel a refusal obviously contradicts policy. A scheme that has attracted a lot attention may automatically go to committee, especially if a councillor ask for this to happen. The rules governing councillors’ conduct say that if they are lobbied and involved in discussions about a proposal, they must declare an interest and are not allowed to vote on the decision. Consequently, lobbying councillors for support can be counter-productive. What you can do is make sure that they get all the right information, particularly if you have a good presentation that helps to sell the scheme. Most councillors on planning committees are not trained in reading and interpreting drawings and sometimes find it difficult to visualise a building, particularly if it is of a contemporary design. If they don’t understand the design, their safest option is to reject it.

Although local authorities now post up application details on their websites during the consultation period, most only show drawings, not 3D animations of computer models. The latter can sometimes make the difference between a radical design being understood and approved or rejected because the elevation drawings are difficult to interpret. There is nothing to stop you sending a CD with some 3D animations to each member of the planning committee, as well as any potential objectors.

Design and Access statements are required for all applications for new houses and in conservation areas, but if one is not required consider submitting it anyway. It can be used to sell the project to the planners, councillors and neighbours, with illustrations and a detailed explanation of the thinking behind the design.

Ultimately, your application may get rejected and you will have to consider an appeal. If you have allowed for this possibility from an early stage, you should be well prepared for this and have structured you application to give you the best possible chance of succeeding.

What Makes an Application Controversial?

  1. Contemporary design is unacceptable to some planning authorities and individual councillors, although they will rarely admit this openly.
  2. Changes of use e.g. barn conversions can lead to conflicts with local planning policy.
  3. Well organised, vocal opposition from local residents can block an application, even if they do not have a strong case in terms of planning policy.
  4. Planning policy may sometimes be illogical but the local authority will vigorously oppose anything that they see as contradicting it.
  5. Individual planning officers may give incorrect advice or may form personal opinions about the application. Officially this is not supposed to interfere with the approval process but sometimes it does.
  6. Planning committee may override the officer’s recommendation for approval. A few committees do this regularly.

There are particular aspects of a design that are more likely to cause controversy. These should be identified early on in the design process and where possible measures to reduce the risk of a refusal can be considered, provided that they do not ruin the integrity of the design. You may need to achieve a minimum size of house to suit your requirements that makes the design look disproportionately large compared to surrounding buildings. To counteract any objections you may wish to reduce the height and apparent bulk of the house, without sacrificing floor area. If the site is large enough one way of doing this is to reduce the ground levels immediately around the footprint, and then lower the whole building, with slopes running up to the site boundaries. The extreme version of this approach is to add a basement to conceal a whole level of the house completely.

You can reduce the pitch of the main roof, which will lower the ridge height, but this may harm the appearance and require you to use less attractive roofing materials. A better option is to break the roof up into several pitches or lower the eaves in some areas where full height space is not essential inside. Likewise if the mass of the building is over-dominating it can be broken up into smaller units. This helps considerably where the potential problem is a large, flat elevation facing the road.

If you must have a contemporary design, try to find a site in a area where the local authority have a recent track record in approving it. In theory it shouldn’t be grounds for refusal, but all architects can tell you which planning departments will refuse almost anything except traditional-looking schemes and those that will encourage something more up to date. It also helps if you can find a neighbourhood where there is no consistent style, or ideally a mix of a variety of different ages with a few poor examples of design. It may not sound the ideal place to live, but the design is nothing to do with the quality or cost of construction. You need to find a perfectly good quality area but with poorly integrated, badly thought out design of the individual buildings – all too easy to find in the UK. If you still find that you ideas get a hostile reception, a last resort is to create a frontage to the street that is relatively traditional in appearance, but go for something more creative on the back or sides of the house that are not visible to passers-by. Another tactic is to create unusual, modern form and massing but face them up with traditional materials such as brick, stone, slate and clay tiles. This makes the design more acceptable to many people, particularly if the materials are similar to local traditional buildings.

Over the past few years, pressure from national government has pushed sustainable or ‘green’ building up the agenda of local authorities, to the point that the fact that a feature of any design that is clearly energy efficient or environment friendly should have great influence supporting approval, even over its appearance. This means that you can use the sustainability argument to defend the use of a flat roof, if it is overlain with turf or sedum and a lime wash finish on a cob or straw bale house. Unfortunately this theoretical argument does not necessarily work in practice to convince planning committees, so you may have to go to appeal to get a sympathetic hearing.

If you find that you are compromising the design so much that it becomes bland or even unattractive, it may be time to re-think the strategy and either make a fight of it, or try a different concept.


Copyright Julian Owen, not to be reproduced, copied or distributed except for personal or education use.