Waiting for planning permission can cost time and money but knowing what your local borough will permit and testing the water will expedite the process. Read on for our essential guide to hassle-free planning.
Words: Gillian Upton.
If your project needs planning permission it need not be a nightmare process. It’s something that needs to be applied for as soon as you have agreed drawings and your architect will liaise with the appropriate planning office and submit plans.
Experience will tell them what is likely to get passed. Trying to get a basement passed near the Thames or Wandle rivers, for example, will be impossible, so too a double-height basement anywhere in the borough of Wandsworth. Mega basements may be de rigueur in Notting Hill but not on this side of the river. The borough can only recall one multi-level basement, in Roedean Crescent in the far west of the area. Houses in Wandsworth Common and Balham are busy digging down for single-level basements to extract the last remaining area of unused space. Reflecting the increased popularity of basements in the area, Wandsworth updated its guide on them last year, but has stayed firm on only allowing single-level basements for the time being. However, Nick Calder, Head of Development Permissions, Wandsworth Council, says: “We will get that pressure from residents in the long term.” So never say never.
Avoid a £10,000 party wall bill by taking care of your neighbour and their garden, advises Kevin Kew, Director of Simply Extensions. “If your neighbour decides to get their own surveyor in then your start date will go out the window,” he warns. “Neighbours can be awkward so just knock on the door and nurture a good relationship with them.”
Both Wandsworth and Lambeth have departments of 30-plus planning officers dealing with applications, which usually take eight weeks to be processed and approved. Typically, each officer has a caseload of 60- 70 at any one time. Householder applications cost £172, a figure set by government.
Some 90% of applications are approved first time by the planning officers but, nonetheless, their job would be made easier if all applications were completed correctly first time round. The best advice is to check the guidance in the Supplementary Planning Document on the Lambeth and Wandsworth websites. “The worst problem is invalid applications because the drawings are not complete,” says Nick Calder. “They miss out the side extensions, or don’t fill in the CIL form [Community Infrastructure Levy, see Jargon Buster Page]. 30% of applications are invalid and have to be thrown back at the applicants. Residents blame the council but it’s not our fault, it’s the fault of the person they employ to do it.”
Tracking an application is easy online and any invalid application will show as such on the website within days of applying. What’s permitted within each borough is listed on the borough websites (see addresses on our Resources listing, page 98), and rejections are usually due to the height of the boundary wall, too big a basement or the front lightwell being too large.
If your architect is in any doubt about what’s permissable, Wandsworth offers a free, 20-minute pre-application advice appointment with a Duty Planning Officer. A more formal hour-long meeting can follow, costing £135 (more if the building is listed). Both can be booked online. “Not enough people do it,” says Nick. “If you think how much basements cost, the price of a meeting is a tiny percentage of that.” In-between is a service online offering written advice for £70, but Nick says that he’d always advocate a face-to-face meeting. “For a major development, you need it,” he says. Sheree Bennett, a senior planner at Lambeth, which also offers a pre-planning service, says, “It gives absolute certainty,” yet only 11% of applicants used it in her borough last year. If an application is refused, Wandsworth offers the pre-application meeting afterwards, at half price. Appeals are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol. It can take up to three months and generally it’s not worth appealing as the planners have rejected the application in the knowledge that there is no reason for appeal, so don’t waste your time and money. Revise the plan! “Come back and say, ‘What can we do and how can we overcome it?’ suggests Nick. If a Party Wall Agreement is needed, which is a civil affair, Nick advises taking a bottle of wine and going to talk to the neighbours.
“Create a relationship. It’s a good way to get to know them, in case there are problems during the build.” Sadly, this does not often happen and planning officers spend half their time undertaking conflict resolution.
One other contentious area is building control, which confirms satisfactory completion of all work. Residents can use the council’s facility or an independent provider. The council promotes theirs as upholding higher standards rather than an unknown third party that your builder has sub-contracted. “If a building falls down it tends not to have been approved by the council,” cautions Nick.
Sheree Bennett flags up the fact that the council’s building control section is part of the planning department, is located in the same building and that officers can easily talk to each other for seamless communication on a particular project. However, Rory Gordon, Managing Director of Good London Builders, takes a different view: “It costs a little more than the council route, but the private guys will come to you within a matter of hours to sign something off, as opposed to weeks with the council – this can dramatically affect your build process and costs.” Forewarned is forearmed and projects will go more smoothly when you have a good grasp of all the facts.