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Taking On The Planners

asteroidsWhat happens when the planners are not going to allow you to do something which you think is completely reasonable?

Planning mentality

It is important to understand how planners think. At the end of the day most of them want an easy life and a guaranteed salary so they tend to try to achieve an outcome which upsets the fewest number of people that matter. They are not particularly interested in things like creative design, community politics or the local economy, although they will pay lip service to such high ideals.

Their strongest argument is nearly always about whether a proposal fits in with the surroundings and what already exists. Hence the dilemma which arises when someone proposes a bold modern self build design in some kind of traditional area, even if that traditional area is a boring stretch of jerry built 1930s housing. Their whole approach is geared to matching various lowest common denominators and indeed it can be a very difficult argument to get past.

Policy or opinion

When pushed, planners will usually produce some kind of guidance or policy document which backs up their ‘lowest common denominator’ approach (although you sometimes do come across quite enlightened policy documents)

You also need to know when the planners are driven by technical issues, when by policy and when by personal opinions. (for want of a better term) . It can also occasionally happen that political motivations or graft are at play and override the role of planners.

The Headington shark

As an example of a technical issue it might be that the area is lacking in sewerage infrastructure and more buildings would overload the system. Or a planner might insist that when you design your house you provide parking space for two or more cars. (It is no good arguing that you only have one car)  see more

Planning policy is not about any one individual because you might sell your house next year to someone who has 5 cars. These are area-wide policies. Parking policy can lead to interesting results. In some areas where off-road parking is a difficult issue, councils have requested drawings for the landscaping of the garden and parking area. If there was any mention of roses in this area they have been banned on the basis that roses don’t always get pruned properly, they get out of hand and tend to scratch people parking nearby which causes people to park on the road rather than in the drive or car parking area. This clutters up the roads. Yes the reach of planners can be long and peculiar.

These are probably policies which has been developed over many years by the council in an effort to prevent on-street parking. It is very difficult to argue against these kinds of thing with a planner as they have a lot of long term technical support from other departments behind them.

Where it is a matter of policy you need to find out what sort of policy this is. Policies arise for all sorts of reasons, some quite sensible and others completely batty. For instance, planners may insist that you use a building material which is traditional to the area whereas you feel that this is no longer appropriate.

Occasionally you come across a planner with a bee in his bonnet about something. This can be difficult to distinguish from what is accepted council policy. If you suspect you are dealing with someone like this then try getting in touch with a different member of the planning team or the officer’s manager and check out whether they are following correct procedures.

It is no accident that some people manage to get planning permission for the most inappropriate buildings while others get turned down on reasonable applications. This is sometimes to do with what’s called planning gain (e.g. permission is given in exchange for some land the council needs for community use) but very often it is about the old boys network and who knows whom. Often whole communities fight long and hard for the type of housing they feel appropriate in an area, whereas powerful commercial interests can often achieve their ends by more devious means.

Unfortunately the general public seldom gets involved with positive, pro-active planning issues. It is usually through the negative process of ‘objections’ that people meet the planners. Enter the Town and Country Planning Association whose mission is:

‘We campaign for the reform of the UK’s planning system to make it more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and to promote sustainable development’

So what can you do when the planners are against you? Well fortunately, quite a lot.

Sympathetic Councillors

You can approach your councillors and put your case. If sympathetic, they may well support your application for you self build project when it comes up at the meeting of the council. What might typically happen is that at the meeting most applications will be accepted or refused “on the nod” depending on the planner’s recommendation but when it comes to yours, your sympathetic councillor will stand up and support you. Providing there is nothing dangerous, illegal, or outrageous, etc. about your application then the planner may be quite happy to hand the decision over to the political process knowing that if, for instance, neighbouring people have objected then it will be the council that takes the blame for the decision rather than the planner.

A famously interesting and extremely protracted case of all this happening concerns the famous shark sculpture in Headington, Oxford.

Planning Consultants

Planning consultants are professional advisers in planning matters who you can employ to put forward your case. They will often spot technical issues which have been overlooked and are an extremely powerful way to get results, especially if you make an appeal against a refusal. They do not come cheap but may be well worth the money.

If you feel you are being ridden roughshod by the planning process they can often force the planners to take a deep breath and see things differently.

If they can do their bit by stating recommendations which upset the minimum number of people in the area concerned and match the council’s policy then they have done their job. A planning consultant’s job is to either catch them out on a technicality or to influence the council in some more fundamental way which overrides the normal planner’s approach.

There is a registry of planning consultants


You have the right to appeal against a decision and there is an established procedure for this. Normally you appeal only as a last resort when all negotiations have failed. Ultimately, if you were so minded you could pursue the matter to the House of Lords.

The procedure for appeal is set out in the government’s Planning Portal.

see also the government Planning Portal site

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