Navigate the Planning Maze and Achieve Your Dream House

Montagu Evans has a reputation as one of the UK’s leading specialist town planning and development consultancies. With specialist planning teams in London and Edinburgh, Montagu Evans provides comprehensive planning advice on a wide range of development projects.

Chris Miele With more than 20 years’ experience, Chris is a specialist in heritage and planning, listed buildings, new developments on sensitive land and cultural development. Chris has worked on many complex, high profile projects including the British Museum, the South Bank Centre, Westminster Abbey, the Former Commonwealth Institute for Design Museum and several large central London masterplans.

Tim Miles works on a variety of planning projects within Central London for both private and commercial clients. He has been involved in recent development projects in Belgravia, Mayfair, Kensington and Hampstead and also Outer London, Berkshire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and the Midlands.

What is a planning consultant?

TM All development in this country – from shopping centres to single new houses or back extensions over a certain size– is governed by a set of laws known collectively as ‘the planning system’. Planning Permission is required from the local Council to undertake any of these works of development, including excavations. Special permission is required for most works to a listed building.

CM Planning consultants understand the requirements and can make the process easier and quicker, making sure you get the most out of your property. He or she will have a good idea what is likely to get consent and so can save time and money for applicants too.

TM Consultants do three main jobs for their clients. Firstly they work closely with other members of the design team, using their specialist knowledge to advise on what may or may not be accepted by the planners. Secondly, they prepare and submit the application itself to the planning authority, carefully setting out why the proposals comply with the Council’s policies. Thirdly, often, a negotiation with the planners is required to obtain planning permission, changes to the scheme and so on. A Planning Consultant would lead that negotiation on their client’s behalf.

Isn’t it the job of an Architect to deal with planning issues?

CM Yes, an Architect can do this work on many projects, but the system and its requirements are increasingly complex. We get a lot of referrals from Architects who appreciate that many of the challenges they face require specialist advice. Regrettably, we have also sometimes been appointed after the fact, and have had to trouble shoot poorly or simply incomplete applications. This is not the best use of an applicant’s money. You have to appreciate that the planning system has become increasingly complex over the years. Planning requirements change frequently and every Council has its own planning policies. London alone has 32 different Councils, each of which has its own plan for the area, its own rules and its own approach. On top of that, the Mayor of London has his own planning policies.

TM For example, the way new basements under houses are treated in Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, a few streets apart, is hugely different. A design that may be acceptable in one Borough may not be in the other and vice versa. And to top it all off, both Boroughs are proposing changing their approach to basements to a more restrictive position. Camden is again different.

CM There are also many ‘special cases’ in planning, building in certain areas of the countryside or altering listed buildings. In-depth specialist knowledge is important if you are going to get it right first time.

TM If planning permission is refused, a Planning Consultant can appeal it for you. The appeal is handled by an independent government appointed Inspector. This is a quasi-legal process and the case needs to be set out in a certain way. Planners will be best able to handle this process.

CM I’d also say that sometimes Council officers will resist schemes at first, but we can usually work constructively with them to get a consent. Having a scheme that is appropriate for an area in the first place is the right starting point. . Success in negotiation takes experience and an understanding of how planning works. Any good Architect will be familiar with the planning system, but the more complex a project, the more valuable it is to have a specialist planner on board. The size of the project does not matter. Sometimes the most complex ones are householder applications.

TM In fact, many Architects enjoy working with planning consultants who can comment on feasibility studies and advise which approach is likely to gain consent. A planner can then devise the best strategy to secure the desired outcome, sometimes through a series of applications, combined with appeals.

What are the most common planning issues?

TM For most householders, the most common issues that they will come across relate to extending their house, perhaps in the roof or at the rear. The first thing to investigate is whether the planned extension can be undertaken under ‘permitted development rights’. These rights tell you what you can do without the need for permission. Many different alterations can be made under permitted development such as extending to the side or rear, a roof extension or even a basement. If you add these together, you can sometimes achieve many of the things you want and so establish a base position to make a good case for larger works.

CM Homeowners should be careful, though, if their house is ‘listed’. This means that it is recognised to be of special architectural or historic importance. Permitted development rights do not apply. Surprisingly, we still come across Architects who think that the list description published on the English Heritage or Council website identifies the extent of what is listed, and this can lead to a great deal of trouble. Just to be clear, when a building is listed, all of it, inside and out, is protected, and that protection even extends to structures in its curtilage, like older boundary walls and garden structures.

CM The particularly important thing to remember about listed buildings is that any work that might affect its character requires listed building consent, even the removal of plasterwork if it is original. Sometimes inexperienced professionals exceed the scope of their client’s consent during the work of construction, leading to enforcement. Our clients need to remember that unauthorised works to a listed building carry with them a strict criminal liability.

TM Councils are very restrictive when it comes to proposals for listed buildings, and rightly so given that they are special.

CM Yes, that is right, but sometimes changes in one part will be welcomed if an applicant is reinstating or restoring lost elements, or bringing a derelict listed building back from the brink of ruin. It is also very important for owners of listed buildings to realise the extent of controls that apply to their property. These are so extensive that, sometimes, it is not even clear what requires consent and what does not, though this is an area we specialise in.

TM The trouble is that the things that can make an historic building special are not always obvious. The layout of rooms, if that is original, can be special in itself, internal joinery, even an alteration made by a famous past owner. I recall one mews house that had a very ordinary wooden stair installed in its garage which the owner wanted to remove for perfectly good reasons, and usually it would have been allowed. It turned out, however, to have been installed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of this country’s most eminent Architects, while he lived in the house. And so a scheme enabling its retention, with alterations elsewhere, had to be worked out. In that case, we had to work closely with English Heritage because the building was highly ‘graded’, so not an ordinary grade II listed building, but a grade I listed one, with the highest level of protection.

CM Work in conservation areas is similarly restricted, and large parts of central London have this designation. Here the test which Councils apply is whether a proposal harms what is special about an area, even if the work is on the rear of the property. It is inevitable that a great deal of judgment comes into play here, and we understand the different standards applied in different authorities and even, it must be said, by different officers. It is regrettable that there is inconsistency in these matters, but it is a fact of what we do.

CM I should add that one of the things we often do is assists Architects on developing detailed proposals during the course of construction and agreeing these with Councils through what is known as ‘the discharge of conditions’ which are imposed on the consent. These conditions are imposed because designs done for planning consent are always less detailed than the final works package.

TM More ambitious householder development projects may involve demolition of all or part of the house. This usually raises the planners’ eyebrows! Recently Montagu Evans secured permission to demolish a mid 90s building in Hampstead that had been built by a prominent Architect who had gone to become president of RIBA. We had a very interesting debate with the Council about whether the building was so special that it should be retained. They took some persuading, and we even had to fight off a last ditch attempt to list the building, which would have scuppered any chances of the owner redevelop the site for their dream house.

When would someone involve a planning consultant?

CM I suppose I would say this, but, really as early as possible! It is the best way to save difficulty and delay further down the line. Often we will give initial advice, involving only a few hours of work, that can set a project off in the right direction and save clients money in wasted time and fees later. If you are buying a house with the aim of altering it, it is often a good idea to involve a planning consultant before you make an offer to make sure that what you want to do is achievable, to avoid disappointment later. This is particularly important if the building is listed, as this may limit what you can do, or the work will need to be approached in a particular way. Also on high value properties, we sometimes undertake planning due diligence before exchange to ensure that there are no unauthorised works which the Council could later seek to have removed. Works to a listed building never become legal, another common misconception.

How do you choose a Planning Consultant?

CM The important thing is that the Consultant has experience of the type of work that you are proposing in the authority where you are working. Planners who work on large office buildings in the City are unlikely to be expert in Georgian houses in Camden or Westminster. Make sure that the Consultant is a Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute or of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (which has a planning specialism). If the project involves a listed building, you might also want to ask if they are a member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. Some planning consultants will have a string of instructions just like yours, and will not just know the policies inside out but also the officers. Look at similar successful developments in your area to see who the planning consultant was. Ask Architects and surveyors for recommendations. For large projects it is worth talking to two or three firms.

TM You will be spending a lot of time talking to your planning consultant as they guide you through the planning maze. It is likely that you will have lots of questions about various complex matters so it is important that the consultant can communicate with you in a way you understand. Talk to the consultant yourself. Do they make the process clear to you? Do they present a range of different options? Are they able to draw on similar experiences or show knowledge of recent consents in your area? They must also have a good working relationship with your Architect. Complexities always arise, and the two professions need to work closely together. The cost of a planning consultant varies, and like with any profession the range will vary. Don’t be guided by price alone, rather by experience and the ability the consultant has to articulate the issues and provide clear advice. Like any consultancy service, planning advice can usually save time and money if you get the right input at the right time. We can add value by optimising your project at almost every stage.

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