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Common planning permission problems and how to avoid them

Underestimating how long it takes to get planning permission is the top problem faced by those planning significant home renovations

Frustrated homeowners looking at building plans

Our survey of homeowners and analysis of government statistics show that you need to do your homework and allow plenty of time to navigate the UK planning permission system.

We asked more than 2,000 homeowners who have carried out projects that needed planning permission about their experiences1. The good news is that 80% of them said they didn’t experience problems.

However, for the hundreds of homeowners who did run into difficulties, timescales topped the list of troubles.

Of those who’d had problems with planning permission, 44% said they’d underestimated the amount of time it would take, sometimes delaying home improvement projects by weeks or even months.

Separate research we carried out with Which? Trusted Traders backs this up – 56% of the Trusted Traders we surveyed said they had seen homeowners make one or more of the mistakes listed in the table below2.


Find professionals to work on your renovation projects by searching for free on Which? Trusted Traders.


Planning permission headaches

Having to change plans after work had already started was the second most common complication, highlighted by 23% of those who’d experienced planning problems.

Another regular headache for homeowners was underestimating the cost of the process, followed by failure to apply at all for planning permission when it was needed.

Table showing most common planning permission problems

Other issues that homeowners said they had experienced include:

  • Having plans rejected by the planning authority because of errors
  • Difficulty getting permission for listed buildings and homes in conservation areas
  • The time and expense of additional surveys, such as bat surveys
  • Underestimating objections from neighbours
  • Having to get retrospective planning permission for work done by previous owners.

Here are just a few of the stories people told us about their planning permission woes.

Quotes from homeowners about their planning permission problems

How long does UK planning permission take?

Planning authorities in the UK have statutory time limits to deal with planning applications, which vary depending on where you live.

  • England and Wales: eight weeks for ‘non-major developments’ (alterations to homes and developments of up to nine flats or houses).
  • Northern Ireland: 15 weeks for ‘local developments’ (mostly residential and commercial developments determined by local councils).
  • Scotland: two months for ‘local developments’ (including changes to individual houses, and small housing and commercial developments).

These deadlines can be extended if the council gets written agreement from the person applying or if additional work is needed, such as an Environmental Impact Assessment. Extensions to the deadline are relatively common, so you need to bear in mind that this could affect your schedule.

How well did each UK region meet planning permission deadlines?

We’ve analysed data reported by local planning authorities across the UK between April 2018 and March 2019 to find out how many applications are actually approved within the statutory time limit or within agreed extensions.

England

Across the country as a whole, only 64% of non-major decisions were made by local authorities within the eight-week statutory deadline3 . You were most likely to get a verdict within that time limit if you live in the north east, where 70.7% of decisions hit the target, whereas in the south west the figure is 60.4%.

But many decisions that took longer than eight weeks did so because the councils had agreed deadline extensions with the applicants. A total of 91.6% of non-major decisions were made within either statutory or agreed limits.

Wales

Just 69.7% of non-major decisions were made within the statutory eight weeks during 2018-194.

However, many councils here also agreed with applicants to extend the time limit, and 88.5% of decisions were made within statutory or agreed limits.

Northern Ireland

Homeowners here are more likely to have a long wait. Not only does the country have the longest statutory deadline at 15 weeks, but councils processed just 50.9% of local development applications within this time frame5.

Decision times varied quite widely between the different local authorities, so it’s worth looking at how yours has performed to get a clearer idea of how long your application could take.

Scotland

Figures have not yet been published for all local developments in 2018-19. But from April to September 2018, about 76% of decisions were made in less than the statutory two months6. The figures available for this period did not give a clear indication of how many were made within agreed extensions.

Applications that didn’t need legal agreements took an average of nearly nine weeks. Those that did need legal agreements took an average of about 31 weeks.

How to avoid planning permission problems

Homeowners looking at construction plans

Research and preparation are key to avoiding some of the common issues homeowners told us they’d experienced when applying for planning permission.

Although you can’t always control factors such as the length of time it takes to decide your application or how much it costs, a bit of groundwork can help you to avoid a nasty surprise.

1 Allow plenty of time for planning permission approval

Don’t assume your application will be decided within a few weeks. The more complex your plans or situation, the more likely it is that the deadline will be extended or missed.

There are steps you can take to minimise delays or reduce their impact:

  • Individual councils’ timeframes can differ considerably within region, so check your local authority’s performance figures to get an idea of how likely your application is to be approved within the statutory timeframe. Bear in mind these can vary depending on the types of cases the authority deals with each year.
  • Try to get your application right before submitting. You can consult your local planning department for help. Basic advice is usually free or you can get more formal ‘pre-application advice’ for a fee.
  • Monitor the progress of your application so that you don’t miss any actions that you need to take, and respond quickly to any requests from the planning authority.
  • Make sure you’re prepared for delays and have a plan for what to do if you can’t start work as scheduled.

If a delay leads to you losing the contractors you’d hired, you can use Which? Trusted Traders to search for builders in your area to help you get your project back on track. All endorsed traders have been through our rigorous assessment process and have signed up to our Code of Conduct.

2 Avoid changing plans after work has started

Plans for a home extension

Ideally, you’ll do the groundwork before submitting your application to make sure that it’s right first time. Consulting professional traders or architects as well as your planning department before applying can help to uncover potential pitfalls that might lead to changes.

But not every project goes as planned and sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll need to change the build from what was agreed with the planning authority. If this happens you should notify the council as soon as possible to reduce delays to your project.

3 Don’t underestimate how much planning permission costs

The cost of planning permission varies depending on the scale of your project, and as the homeowners in our survey found, there can be unexpected additional costs.

To avoid an unpleasant surprise, you should:

  • Make sure you know which type of permission you need to apply for and the correct fee for this.
  • Calculate a figure for a worst case scenario, including possible extras such as bat surveys, and allow some contingency in your budget.
  • Get help working out the fee from online tools such as the Planning Portal for England’s fee calculator or from your local authority.

4 Consider using permitted development rights instead

Several people told us that they eventually abandoned their planning application and revised their plans so that the work fell within permitted development rights, which don’t require planning permission.

Depending on circumstances and the scale of the project, some extensions, loft conversions and balconies can be constructed within permitted development.

If you choose this option, remember to:

  • Find out the rules for the type of property you own, as permitted development rights are different for buildings such as flats, maisonettes and commercial property.
  • Check whether the building is in an area where rights are more restricted, such as a conservation area or national park.
  • Get building regulations approval where appropriate, as this often still applies to permitted development projects.

As with every part of the planning process, it’s best to do your research and get advice from the local authority if you’re unsure about what you can do.


1 April 2018 survey of 2,030 Which? members who said they had experience of planning permission.
2 From a survey of 213 Which? Trusted Traders conducted in April 2019.
3 Non-major decisions made by planning authorities in England between April 2018 and March 2019, excluding the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation and the London Legacy Development Corporation.
4 Non-major applications decided by planning authorities in Wales between April 2018 and March 2019.
5 Non-major applications processed by local authorities in Northern Ireland between April 2018 and March 2019.
6 Mid-year results for local development applications processed by local authorities in Scotland.
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