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Up against the planning laws
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2011
Nothing brings out the campaigning instinct in the British like a planning dispute. Whether it's an out-of-town supermarket, a commercial wind-farm or a sprawl of poorly designed new houses, the chances are that soon after the planning request goes in the petition sheets and campaigning leaflets will be out.
But for every big application by a firm like Tesco there are a hundred more planning requests put in, for all sorts of smaller-scale changes. These are the applications which won't necessarily even get to the planning committee – they'll be assessed by council planning staff, with councillors simply asked to rubber-stamp the planners' verdict.
The problem is that an unsympathetic development by your next-door-neighbour-but-one can cause you just as much distress as an ugly new industrial estate half a mile away. What ‘s the situation if planning applications you don't like arrive, almost literally, at your front door?
They can't do that – can they?
Some things don't need planning permission – although the exact rules can be complicated. There's full information on a user-friendly government website the Planning Portal (http://www.planningportal.gov.uk), which will also help you if you find yourself in the reverse situation of wanting to make changes to your own property.
Here's some answers to some common questions.
Can they build that high wall? Walls over two metres require planning permission (one metre if the wall is next to a highway). There are more detailed rules for listed buildings and for conservation areas. Walls can normally be knocked down at will.
Can they put up that conservatory? Yes they can, but only within certain limits. Planning permission is needed, for example, if the conservatory extends by more than three metres at the rear (four metres for detached houses). The rules are tougher if the conservatory is at the front or side of a house facing a highway.
Can they cut down that tree? Not without prior permission if it has a Tree Preservation Order on it. Your council will tell you if this is the case.
Can they put up solar panels? Yes, they probably can. Solar panels mustn't go above the roofline or extend out by more than 200 mms. The rules are tougher for listed buildings and in conservation areas. There are also rules for free-standing panels (for example, in gardens).
Can they do that loft extension? Often yes, although the size of additional roof space is controlled, as is the appearance of houses facing highways.
Can they plant that leylandii hedge? Oh dear, oh dear, yes they can. But high hedges are now controlled by the Anti-social Behaviour Act, so there is potential recourse when Leyland Cyprus trees get completely out of hand. Choice looked at this issue back in 2006; if you can't find your back copy the article is still available online at the author's website www.andrewbibby.com/misc/neighbours.html
It's nothing personal
The key point about the planning system is that it doesn't concern itself with your own personal situation. It may be true that a development will reduce the value of your property, but that's not a valid ground for a planning objection. Similarly, you can't complain that the view from your lounge window will be spoiled. Things like this are, for planners, just your hard luck. Planners can take into account only what are called ‘material considerations'.
What could material when a planning application gets to be assessed are any broader implications of a development, not just for you but for other neighbours. Here are a few potential arguments which you may be able to make, which would be ‘material' under planning law.
1. The proposal isn't in line with the local Development Plan. (This strategic plan – it may have another name in some areas - sets the overall framework against which proposed developments are assessed.)
2. The proposal doesn't fit in with its surroundings, in terms of its design and/or use.
3. There will be an effect on privacy for adjoining properties.
4. There will be an effect on parking, traffic and road safety.
5. There will be unacceptable noise and disturbance caused to neighbours when the development is complete (sorry, the disruption during the building work doesn't count).
6. There will be a significant loss of sunlight and daylight on nearby houses.
7. There's a precedent for rejection: a very similar proposal was previously turned down for planning permission.
Of course, although arguments like these would be assessed by planners, their decision may still be in favour of approval. So if you're determined to fight a planning application, you'll need to try to strengthen your hand.
Planners do take note of the number of people who oppose (and support) particular applications. Rather than just being a lone voice, it's much better if you can persuade lots of your neighbours to complain, too. As always, personal letters are better than generic petitions. Some local authorities now allow you to comment on an application via their website, so you won't necessarily need envelopes and stamps.
Use your local ward councillors (if possible, seek help from a councillor who isn't on the planning committee, since councillors who have already publicly come out against a proposal will normally be unable to vote when it comes to committee). If you have a town, parish or community council, try to get them on your side.
You also have the opportunity to ask to speak at the planning committee where the application is heard (normally, the committee will hear from the person putting in the application or their representative, and from one person speaking on behalf of all the objectors). If possible, talk to your planning department in advance, so that they know that you want to speak.
There's long been recognition that ordinary people can find it tough to understand planning matters. The excellent charity Planning Aid for London (www.planningaidforlondon.org.uk) offers independent advice to individuals and groups who can't afford professional planning consultants' fees. Similar services are offered by Planning Aid for Scotland (www.planningaidscotland.org.uk) and Planning Aid Wales (www.planningaidwales.org.uk). All these websites have useful publications and advice sheets available.
In parts of England outside London , a similar Planning Aid service is offered through the Royal Town Planning Institute. Their advice line (0330 123 9244) offers up to fifteen minutes' free advice to callers. Some cases will also qualify for further assistance, which will be provided by a professionally qualified volunteer.
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