Article submitted to Farnham Herald on Proposed Planning Changes – read it here

As a local Farnham based Architect whose practice deals with residential projects on a daily basis we keep a close eye on all proposed changes to planning legislation, both nationally and locally.

We have been more than a little amazed at the outcry from many people about the proposed changes to Permitted Development Rights (PDR) for private households announced by the Government earlier this month. Certain interested parties are suggesting that the proposals will “harm the character of an area”. In addition, a YouGov Poll has been published which shows 54% of people questioned felt that the proposed changes would mean the quality of the design of their neighbourhood would get worse. It seems to us that this comes from a misunderstanding of what Permitted Development Rights actually are and what checks and balances already existing to ensure that this doesn’t happen regardless of the proposed changes.

There is very little substantive fact on what the proposed changes to PDR will be so it is curious how people have formed this view. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ Statement on 1st September gave no details and merely said “We will consult shortly on changes to increase existing permitted development rights for extensions to homes.” On 6th September Nick Clegg was interviewed on the BBC and stated that they would “consult on the details” and that it might be good if people could extend “more than 3 metres.”  The rest appears to have been guesswork.

The idea that the £89.5 billion construction industry will be kick-started by allowing someone to build their rear extension one or two metres longer is a little optimistic. It is such a tiny percentage of the overall figure as to be irrelevant.

Equally perplexing is the idea that the proposed changes will cause irrevocable damage to the character of an area. Many properties we see inWaverley,East Hantsand Hart already suffer from ill-conceived ad-hoc extensions “designed” by unqualified people which do more harm than good. A lot of these are extensions which have been granted full planning permission!

Permitted Development Rights are the general term for rights that an individual has to extend or remodel their home without the need to apply for planning permission. These are covered in detail under the legislation known as The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, last amended in (Amendment) (No. 2) (England) Order 2008. In addition, they cover a number of other areas such as change of use of business premises etc.

As an overview, the existing Permitted Development Rights legislation which has been in place since 2008 gives people a number of options to extend beyond their original house including two storey rear extensions up to 3 metres deep, single storey rear extensions 4 metres deep, single storey side extensions up to half the width of the original house and roof extensions up to 50m3 to name but a few.

However, built within the current legislation are a number of safeguards to ensure that where the existing character of an area is of local importance then the full potential of PDR is limited. Proximity to boundaries, extension heights, principal elevations, roof pitches and materials are already controlled within the existing legislation. In Conservation Areas or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (such as Surrey Hills) then the option of any form of roof alteration is not available neither is the option of a side extension or a two storey rear extension.  In addition, the planning authority has within its remit the power to issue new Article 4 Directives to further reduce the scope of Permitted Development Rights. Many new houses already have limitations when planning permission is passed, often removing any possibility for further extension – this is an excellent and welcome example of how Localism can work positively.

There has been nothing within any of the Government’s statements or comments to suggest that there will be any withdrawal of these safeguards or checks.

But there is even more. Just because you might not need planning permission for something doesn’t actually mean you can build it! There is a plethora of other legislation that has to be considered before you can decide if an extension can actually be built. For example, in October 2011 there were wholesale changes to the Adopted Sewers legislation that may prevent building within 3 metres of shared drains; there could be Restricted Covenants on properties limiting what can be built; Listed Building Act legislation, Building Regulations, Rights of Lights, Tree Protection matters and even falling foul of the all encompassing Human Rights Act (such as the interference with the right to respect for private or family life)!

All these things, and more, need to be considered and dealt with before one even looks at the quality of the design itself and the impact on the character of the area.

In response to the speculation on the proposed changes The Royal Institute of British Architects have called on the Government to “ensure adequate safeguards are in place to prevent poorly-designed new extensions as part of its consultation on this proposal.” The quality of a design relates to both the both interior and exterior, after-all who wants an 8 metre deep extension if it means that the middle of your house is completely dark. If you want to ensure a high quality design then you need to engage a professional properly qualified local Architect who can guide you through the maze of legislation and provide the right solution for you, your property and the area you live in.

In summary, a minor relaxation of limited sections of the Permitted Development Rights legislation does not automatically mean everyone can suddenly extend their homes by 8m, does not automatically mean that the character of an area will be adversely affected and will not suddenly kick-start the ailing economy.

Only once the actual details of what is proposed are known will any meaningful discussion be possible on what impact the changes may or may not have on the built environment.