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Essential tips on winning planning permission for small sites

Architects share advice on keeping planners and neighbours on your side throughout the application.

20 January 2022

“Boroughs seem more open to developing small, tight sites,” finds Satish Jassal, Director of Satish Jassal Architects. “Especially for homes in inner city areas where families are increasingly disappearing. When done in the right way, small site development can make places better.”

“A considerable amount of our work comes from those tricky, sensitive sites,” Jassal continues. “Often they are projects that come to us after other consultants were not able to achieve planning permission”.

Demonstrate compliance with local guidance

Many local authorities publish supplementary planning guidance (SPG) specifically for small sites. The London borough of Lewisham’s Small Sites Guide is one example and, given the UK Government’s ambitions to produce detailed local design guides, similar SPGs may well proliferate.

Ian Hunter, Director of Hunter Architects & Planners, observes that in the suburban and semi-rural south Manchester area where his practice is most active, many local councils will have guidance at the household level. This guidance should be the starting point for the architect, Hunter believes, and the application has to demonstrate policy compliance.

Rhys Cannon, Director of Gruff Architects, points out that many architects carry out work in conservation areas and that success on an application will often hinge on small issues and aspects.

“Find out whether local character appraisals exist for the area,” Cannon urges. “These explain what is unique about each individual conservation area: you need to get stuck in and understand those documents.”

Lists of accredited agents

Ian Hunter points out that practices with a track record of submitting applications in full compliance with local and national requirements may be able to apply to join a council’s list of “accredited agents”. This is not restricted to planning consultants and can raise your practice’s profile.

Trafford, for example, requires three consecutive planning applications in accordance with its checklist and an agreement to abide by a code of practice. This list forms part of its Planning for Householders guidance.

Southwark Brick House is a three-bedroom house comprising two floors and a basement level, on the site of a former garage in a conservation area; © Satish Jassal.

Responding to context

Such documents are key to what many architects routinely cite as the most important part of a planning application: sensitivity to the context of the site and its surroundings.

Dealing with contextual issues is critical and the source of most of the design hurdles the practice has to clear, stresses Ian Hunter. You need to achieve a design that will be accepted by planners as sympathetic to the local character of the area.

“You don’t have to do a pastiche design,” reminds Rhys Cannon. “A contemporary reaction to a historic context is often better regarded.”

“If there are conservation area groups locally then do try to engage with them: does the area have a Community Panel? If it is an infill site, they are often receptive to a quality contemporary design which is distinct.”

According to Lichfields planning consultancy, the new National Design Guide is increasingly being cited in Design and Access Statements to show planners how a design meets the desirable characteristics set out in it.

Preapplication guidance

A good place to start is a pre-application discussion with planners. But architects have mixed feelings as to the quality of advice they might receive.

“They can be very valuable,” suggests Cannon. “If the process works properly, they can highlight notable issues that planners have spotted which you haven’t. However, sometimes they can be bad experiences, with advice that is not maintained later on.”

“What we don’t want from a pre-app discussion is to be told what we already know from planning policy guidance,” states Hunter. “We will sometimes ask clients whether they want to spend money on a pre-app. It can be more valuable having an informal five-minute telephone call with a planning officer, if you can arrange it.”

Understand local politics

“As well as demonstrating how your design picks up on the local vernacular, it is very important to understand local politics,” counsels Satish Jassal. “Conservation areas are the hardest: it may only require two objections for it to go before a planning committee.”

Be aware of the local context you are working in, he advises. Make it clear to the neighbourhood and planning department that what you are doing will benefit the area.

He puts it very simply: design that leaves the environment in a better condition than you find it. This is the message you should try to get across. The aim should be to provide an enticement for both the neighbourhood and the planning department to join you on a journey.

Make it easy for the planning department

There is a lot of staff turnover in planning departments. Your application may be seen by several different case officers. It is important to provide them information so that they can quickly get up to speed and not be reinventing the wheel.

“Put a comprehensive pack together, so anyone can pick it up and understand it at any point,” urges Jassal. “Your design statement should tell a story of the design journey. Give them the tools to justify your design to others: they will be in meetings you won’t be at.”

This should anticipate frequently asked questions and likely objections. For example, any height differences between aspects of your scheme and neighbouring buildings and amenities should be easy to see and quote by planning officers; thus demonstrating a lack of negative impact on the area.

“What I have learned from small sites translates to large ones too,” Jassal concludes. “If you can do it in a conservation area on a tight site then bigger sites seem easier.”

Thanks to Ian Hunter, Director, Hunter Architects & Planners; Satish Jassal, Director, Satish Jassal Architects; and Rhys Cannon, Director, Gruff Architects.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Places, planning and communities.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

First published Thursday 20 January 2022

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