In this guest piece, Ufuk Bahar - founder of multi-disciplinary architecture practice, Urbanist Architecture, which specialises in maximising the ROI and viability of difficult building plots in London - sets out how best to achieve planning permission.
The title of this article, of course, begs a question: is there planning permission that cannot be implemented? And, if so, why would such a thing exist? The answer, as many people who have been involved in the UK property market know, is that it does, and it can be the source of enormous frustration and cost. So in this article, we are going to look at how people can end up with planning permission they can’t use - and how you can avoid that.
From a planning point of view, there are three main reasons why consent from a local authority can turn out to be useless. The first is that the planning permission contains conditions it is either impossible or unaffordable for you to put into practice. The second is when your planning application itself contains actions you can’t make happen.
And the third is when the planning obligations - Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payments - make the project unviable.
We should say at this point that impossible conditions are not supposed to exist. The National Planning Policy Framework says:
“Planning conditions should be kept to a minimum and only imposed where they are necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects. ... Conditions that are required to be discharged before development commences should be avoided, unless there is a clear justification.”
And yet, conditions that are near-impossible to discharge are something that everyone in the business comes across, sometimes on a regular basis.
A frequent source of both the first and the second problem is access. The houses you want to build might be at the end of a private road that you do not own. Or in order to make the development workable in practice, you need to create an access leading out onto an A road, something the highways department is firmly against.
The council can give you outline or even full planning permission to build those houses on the hopeful assumptions you have made in your application, but unless you can get the owners of the private road to allow you to use it or the highways department to let you have cars driving out on to a fast road, your planning permission will remain nothing more than a PDF.
How does this happen? You can partly put the blame on the high-risk nature of planning permission in the English system. That means that planning permission on its own becomes valuable, and therefore plenty of landowners have the goal of achieving planning permission and then either selling the land or only then raising the money to develop it, rather than starting off with a clear idea of how they are going to build something. It also means that it’s often the case that developers are reluctant to commit too many resources during the planning application process.
As a result, we have a culture in which, for instance, for smaller projects, the question of whether there are pipes or other utilities running across the site are not raised until after planning permission has been secured.
To get planning permission you can be sure that you can use, you’ll need a different mindset. You should think from the start about a building in use, rather than just a piece of paper (or digital equivalent) that allows you to build one (subject to conditions). It might mean being willing to spend more money during the initial stages of the project. It should mean that you are thinking about build costs and having a continuing dialogue with your architects about the price implications of the design decisions that you are making with them.
It might mean taking the risk of engaging with potential interested parties, such as the owners of neighbouring properties and utility companies, earlier than many of us would instinctively like to. On the path to getting planning permission, not allowing public or institutional opposition time to build up momentum seems like a wise move. But on the path to getting implementable planning permission, sometimes talking to people, companies or pressure groups that could cause problems down the line is advisable.
It might mean being more specific in what you submit to the council than you need strictly for purposes of getting consent. That can mean using high-quality 3D illustrations so that you don’t end up with the council endlessly rejecting the materials you submit during the conditions phase because what you and the planning officer saw in basic black-and-white planning drawings turned out to be very different. Increasingly, it means establishing what the performance of your building is going to be when measured against various sustainability criteria, rather than being surprised by conditions that cannot be met by your vague green promises.
It will definitely mean being sure you and your design team have not double-counted the parking space.
And you should be thinking about CIL payments and Section 106 agreements from the start, not hoping that they will magically go away. If you are dealing with those councils that are robust about sticking to their affordable housing requirements, you need to have a clear sense of what you can supply while remaining profitable.
There is also a simple, practical thing you and your design team always need to do: planning conditions are often agreed before permission is granted. At that moment, with the target so close at hand, it’s all-too-understandable that most people just nod through what the planning department is suggesting. But it’s always worth going through the conditions very carefully, trying to think through all the implications of what they require, and - if necessary - going back to the council and seeing if you can agree on a change or two. Yes, afterwards you can still apply for a variation of conditions, but holding up planning permission for a week or two to negotiate with the council will always be quicker.
Naturally, we are also going to say that it certainly helps if you are working with fully qualified and experienced professionals, and that you understand that for any development project likely to make you a decent return, you are likely to need a range of specialists on board. You might be hoping that your architect will have enough knowledge so you don’t need a daylight/sunlight specialist and that your town planning consultant can spare you the expense of a transport expert, but that way stores up risks.
It’s also important that you are as clear as possible with your design team about how far you plan to take this project: just to planning, just through construction or is this a building you want to own for years to come?
We should wind this up by pointing out that the burden of all this should not be solely on the developer. Councils should not be using planning conditions as a way of effectively saying no while - for statistics purposes - appearing to say yes. It’s important that when this does happen, we all highlight it - to local councillors and MPs and to the press. Because useless planning permission is a drag on the economy and deprives everyone of housing or business premises that this country urgently needs.
You can find out more about planning drawings and planning conditions here and here.
*Ufuk Bahar is the founder of Urbanist Architecture