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Guide: Self-Building & The Politics Behind It

Self-builders approaching their first project are often unaware of exactly how the British planning system works.

One key element that's often overlooked is the fact that local planning is run by local government. And where there's government – there's politics.

In this guide, we'll introduce self-builders to the politics of planning and highlight the key factors in local government that could impact your chances of gaining permission for your project.

How it works

As we've mentioned in previous posts, one of the key pieces of legislation in recent years was the Localism Act (2011). This aimed to bring about mass de-centralisation and in terms of planning, this meant the abolition of regional strategies – with development plans devolved to local governments across the country.

The Act enables local authorities to put together frameworks on the type of development they want to prioritise in their areas, the kinds they want to prevent and sets out their priorities on the local economy, infrastructure and community facilities.

Going further down the rabbit hole, invested community groups can also contribute to the process with Neighbourhood Plans. These work in a similar fashion to local plans, giving stakeholders a say on where new developments should go, what they should look like and what's not wanted.

With the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill working its way through parliament, it's likely that we'll see further changes in this area as London passes further powers to the regions.

Who decides?

There's several parties at the local authority who may be ultimately responsible for deciding the fate of your application. If it's a standard application that local residents don't take issue with – it can be approved by the chief planning officer.

However, if the application turns out to be contentious or attracts a high number of objections from local residents, parish or town councils – then it may have to go before the planning committee. If this does occur, you'll be notified and usually be given the chance to address the committee.

There's no hard and fast rules on this front, however, and things can differ according to a local authority's delegated agreement. This sets out in which cases officers can tackle an application on their own and when they'll be deferred to the planning committee.

If yours does end up in front of the committee, the officer will put forward recommendations, which the committee will debate and then vote whether to follow or not.


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The practicalities

We've previously covered the raft of rules that affect planning in the UK, but despite efforts to simplify sprawling regulations – there remains ample room for interpretation.

And it's up to both planning officers – civil servants unaffiliated to any political camp – and politicised planning committees, made up of elected councillors, to define how regulations are applied to specific projects in their area.

Therefore, you could see very different outcomes when trying to achieve permission for a practically identical self-build project in two authorities.

Another factor that plays a role is speed and when it comes to planning, this is something of a double-edged sword.

With the growing housing crisis looming, the government was unhappy with the rate at which planning applications were being processed by local authorities. To stimulate this, a system was introduced whereby councils are incentivised to tackle applications within a target timeframe of eight weeks and those that fail to achieve this are penalised.

This presents good news, in that you can expect your application to be processed apace, but unfortunately, the onus on speed doesn't bode well for the amount of time councillors will spend deliberating – or negotiating – the particulars of your project.

So, while in the past, you may have had opportunities for some back-and-forth on your application, after amending plans to abide by recommendations. These days, this is very much a luxury.

The take-away: Given that there's little room to negotiate, it's vital to keep an eye on your application's progress via the local planning portal. If concerns are raised ahead of an adjudication, it makes sense to withdraw the application until you've had a chance to address these issues.

Re-applying is free and doing things this way will help you avoid a refusal, which can be an indelible black mark on a particular plot.

You can also pre-arrange your purchase so that it's conditional on gaining planning permission – letting you secure the plot, without risking taking on a useless piece of land.

In addition, many vendors will get outline planning permission (basic approval to build a single dwelling on the plot, for instance) to make their plot more attractive to buyers. If you take one of these, you'll still have to apply for 'reserved matters' (which deals with the specifics of your project).

Politics and planning

Now that we've covered the way things work, in what situations might self-builders fall foul of politics?

Housing Crisis: The shortfall in homes can actually be good news for self-builders, with new regulations forcing councils to find places for self-build plots in their localities.

Councils are also required to have identified a five-year housing supply for their districts and if they haven't – there's a chance your application will be pushed through (although you may have to appeal to central government following a refusal), even trumping frameworks set out in a local plan.

Contention: Councillors on the planning committee are elected – typically along party lines. And if their local members have stood on a platform that involves development in the area – this could be bad news for your application.

However, there's nothing to stop you lobbying local politicians either, so don't be afraid to get in front of them and put your side of the story across – particularly if you're facing objections.

Objections and objectives: If you do come across objections from neighbours and other third-parties during the consultation phase, it can be advisable to play the diplomat. Try and find out what issues they've got with your design and if possible, incorporate their feedback in a revised application. After all, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.


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