Planning officers and how to tame them by Clive Aslet

—14th May 2018

When an owner of a historic property wants to make alterations, the odds can sometimes seem stacked against the owner.  Usually, the needs of modern life require a degree of alteration.  Family kitchens, where cooking, eating, homework and internet shopping share the same space, need to be provided in homes that were built for a more formal age; proper bathrooms are an obvious requirement; so is the cabling and pipework for electronic wizardry and hot water.  But some local authority and English Heritage officials don’t get it.  Their super-purist views may be all very well in theory – but they’re not the ones living in the house or paying the bills.  What is the owner to do?

It’s important to play the right game.  Much can be done to smooth the path of a planning application.  The early stages are particularly important, since relationships formed then may set the tone for subsequent negotiation.  Not all planners and conservation officers are ogres, by any means.  Unfortunately, budgetary constraints on planning offices mean that there are fewer of the older, wiser and more knowledgeable employees around (long service made them expensive); they may have been replaced by young tyros who are less pragmatic in outlook (forgive them their lack of years).  But a further trouble for the owner is that even perfectly nice, well-intentioned officials may hold radically different views.  Let me explain.

Planner A prefers that alterations to old buildings declare themselves frankly for what they are.  Anything that smacks of ‘pastiche’ (a popular if meaningless word) is verboten.  Conservation officer B, however, belongs to a different school.  While stopping short of outright fakery, he would favour a result that doesn’t jar; the object is to achieve a harmonious aesthetic whole.  There’s something to be said for both points of view.  But the owner needs to know in advance which species of individual he is dealing with.

An architect with local experience—not necessarily based locally, but with project experience in the right local authority’s area—can help hugely.  If the local authority is small, he may know the people concerned.  He may be able to steer his design – and his client’s expectations – accordingly.  Be aware, though, that some architects are better at handling people than others.  Some, full of belief in their own project, are too adamant and this can set back the cause.  A (rare) few are able to charm the birds from the trees.  The latter category is likely to have been through the wringer before, many times.  They have learnt how to accommodate on small points, while remaining firm on the more important ones.  Temperament and people skills are qualities to consider when the architect is chosen.

Forewarned is forearmed.  Invite the planners to give their opinion at as early a stage as possible.  A good ploy is also to get the neighbours round.  For obvious reasons, this is particularly important in London.  If you explain to them what you intend to do, emphasise that you will do it with as little disruption to them as possible, and suggest that the enhancements to your home will lift the tone of the neighbourhood, increasing property values and allowing them to do similar works, you may win them over to your scheme.  This is important.  If more than two objections to a scheme are received by the planning officers, it is likely to be sent to the planning committee for discussion.  This causes delay and can have an uncertain outcome.  It is one thing to know the planning officers, it is another to predict the feelings of an entire committee.

Reports by qualified experts on matters such as the historic significance and architectural value of the building being altered, as well as the merit of the architect or architectural intervention, can strengthen the owner’s position.  It will help greatly if the planners believe in the architect’s commitment to doing the work well.

‘Pre-applications’ are a means of testing the water.  The architect submits rough plans for an informal opinion from the local planning officer, in advance of submitting a full planning application.  The planners’ opinion carries weight, in that favourable comments can be adduced in later submissions – although, for that reason, favourable comments are generally kept to a minimum.  The architect will be able to decode the Delphic pronouncement, and be guided accordingly.

Everyone is apt to have a view on what an owner should do with his project.  Planners, however, should rein in their aesthetic senses.  They are charged with the implementation of planning law; they have no remit to impose their personal aesthetic prejudices on the luckless householder.  And yet this all too often happens.  Although owners can appeal against any refusal that results, perhaps with every prospect of winning, it’s risky procedure, and by the time it’s been carried through, the original reason for wishing to make the alteration – a growing family, for instance – may have passed.

It should be possible to avoid this agony by employing a good planning consultant.  He or she will certainly know what is within the officer’s legitimate sphere of operation, and restrict the officer to it.  Often, owners only think of this option when they have hit an obstacle.  The obstacle – and much heartache and delay –might have been avoided if they had gone for it earlier.

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