How to get planning permission for an off-grid, self-build home

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Posted Aug 3 2015 by Pete Grugeon of Bulworthy Project
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This article is based on our experiences of the planning system at Bulworthy Project and the experiences of our friends. Neither of us had any interaction with the planning system before setting up Bulworthy Project. As part of setting up the project, we have applied twice under the permitted development system for a shed and a barn and twice for full planning permission – once for temporary residential permission to live in a caravan and once for permission to build a house (above). We have got each of these without having to go to the planning committee or appeal. To an extent we have been lucky, but we have also done what we can to weight the dice in our favour. Even though we have been successful on each application in the first instance, the process is hard work, time consuming and extremely stressful. We felt at times that we were living in limbo, running a business and living a lifestyle that could be taken away from us by some bureaucratic nonsense. The whole set up of Bulworthy Project was immensely hard work. The planning process added an almost unbearable level of stress. This article does not cover specific points of law or show any loopholes to ensure success with gaining planning permission but is more about a philosophy that worked for us and can hopefully help others setting up a low-impact lifestyle for themselves and maybe help to reduce some of that stress.

How We Got Our First Application Wrong

The first building that we applied for was a shed. It was not a full application but was under permitted development rules. As such it should have been simple. We rang up the council to ask how to go about it and were told that we should write them a letter stating what we wanted to build and why including some pictures and they would make a decision within 28 days. We wrote a letter and waited. After a couple of weeks we phoned to ask if there was a decision and were told that it would be dealt with soon. When it got to 28 days we phoned again and were fobbed off again. By the time it had got to 56 days we had done a little research and discovered that they have 28 days to object or you can go ahead and build. We phoned up and said that we were just going to build now as the 28 days had elapsed. We were then told that we had not filled in the correct forms or paid the appropriate fee and therefore the application was not valid. Technically we may have been able to get away with building as we had applied in the format that the planning officer who represented the planning authority had told us to use. That however would have made all subsequent applications a lot less likely to succeed. We put the application on the correct form, paid the fee and waited. The planning officer (who was obviously now asserting her authority) extended the decision period due to her concerns over visual impact and traffic movements. To put this into context, this was a 3m x 6m shed which could not be seen from the road. It represented no notable increase in traffic. We made our case at length and she eventually gave us permission. The whole process which should have been entirely uncontroversial and over in 28 days, took about 6 months. As we were looking to get permission to live on our land we needed to vastly improve the way we dealt with the planning process.

Learn The Rules Before You Play The Game

You wouldn’t play a game of poker without being sure that you understood the rules first. Planning is no different. Before we applied for temporary planning permission to live on our land we read not only the relevant planning policies but also found as many cases as we could that had been decided under those policies. We read both successful and unsuccessful cases and tried to see what went well for some and badly for others. One thing that really stuck out was that a lot of the cases that failed had been argued on the general merits of the development without regard to the appropriate policies. Some of these cases were for well deserving projects which would have been a positive part of the local economy and environment, but were not allowed to continue because they had not addressed the requirements of the appropriate policy. Often their cases would have fitted the policies, they just needed to show that they did. Do note that the law is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The best place to go for planning advise for low-impact developments is Chapter7

State Your Case Even If It Seems Obvious

A lot of what seems obvious to you will not necessarily be obvious to your planning officer or members of the public who read your case. You may think that it is obvious that a charcoal kiln which is burning away and creating temperatures in excess of 600°C requires someone on site to prevent the risk of damage, injury or death. Your planning officer may never have thought about charcoal making and have no idea of that danger. You may think that the environmental benefits of removing the conifers that have foolishly been planted in an ancient woodland and restoring the coppice are obvious. Until it is explained to them, your planning officer and members of the public may just see this as unnecessarily cutting down trees. Explaining everything will make your paperwork lengthy but it will make it comprehensive and it will make it look like you are serious. A planning officer once said to us about our case (before seeing the paperwork we were about to submit), “We see a lot of these cases put forward on half a sheet of A4”. You do not want them to think that you are proposing an idea that is thought out on the back of a cigarette packet.

Talk To Your Neighbours

Sooner or later (and generally sooner) your neighbours will find out what you are doing and will form an opinion. You may as well try to help them form a positive opinion. Talk to them about what you intend to do and ask them if they have any suggestions as to how to reduce or remove any impact it may have on them. We had a little touring caravan on the opposite side of the woods to the caravan we lived in. We had used it before we moved on and then friends used it when they visited us. It was on the edge of the woods and our neighbours could see it from their bedroom window 2 fields away. They asked if we could tuck it away out of sight. We got a winch and pulled it a little further into the woods so that they could not see it. This made no difference to us but to our neighbours it not only meant not only that they had a better view, but they knew that we were up for compromise. It is always possible that you will not be able to convince your neighbours to support you. It is possible that you won’t be able to convince them not to fight you every step of the way but it is worth a try.

Be Part Of The Local Community

If everything goes well you will be living on your land long term. Being part of the community is not only going to help you get planning but will also make your life more pleasant. We were lucky that our local village has a community shop that is run by volunteers. We both started volunteering before we applied for planning permission and we still do. It was hard to put the time in when we were building our house but people locally really appreciated our efforts. However, more than it making us look helpful, it allowed people to put a name to the face. We were not some crazy hippies who were living in the woods, but the people who sold them groceries on a weekend morning. They could ask us questions about what we were doing with our woods and comfort themselves that we were not going to have massive raves or turn the place into a traveller site. The opportunity to volunteer in a community shop is not always going to be available, but seeing if there is anything you can get involved in or simply drinking at the local pub and buying stuff in the local shop all helps to get your face known and helps to normalise you in peoples minds. When the local primary school were looking for somewhere to do forest school activities, we offered them use of our woods. They pay the costs for insurance and their own compost toilet and as well as being great for public relations on a local scale, we like being a positive part of other peoples lives so it is truly a win win situation.

Consult Your Parish Council Before Applying

Even though we had already met some of them through the shop, this was nerve-racking. We also did it slightly wrong. We talked too much about planning policy. The parish council are not bothered about policy. They are bothered about the impact on the local environment and community. Arrange to be at one of their meetings to talk to them about what you want to do and ask for feedback so that you can allay any fears that they have and adapt your plans if necessary to minimise impact. They will appreciate this even if they have no suggestions. We came out of our meeting with the parish council with a recommendation for an outlet to sell our charcoal which turned out to be one of our best outlets. When the district council sent our application to them for comment they backed it unanimously.

Get Pre-Application Advice From The Planning Authority

Some authorities charge for this but it is probably still worth while on balance. Be ready for a negative response. If you were to just give up on your plans, get a job and rent somewhere there is one less application for the authority to deal with. To the planning officer you are talking to you are just presenting them with extra workload. From our experience and from the experience of people we have talked to they often try to put you off at this stage. At the very start of Bulworthy Project we were told that we didn’t “have a cat’s chance in hell”. However, they will also point you in the direction of the relevant planning policy documents and give advise on what parts of your plan may be contentious. If you have done your research thoroughly you already know the areas of policy to look at and you may gain no insight from this meeting but you have consulted the authority. Do not use this as an opportunity to argue your case, use it as an opportunity to make it known that you are up for dialogue and discussion. Listen to what they say, thank them and smile nicely.

Be Prepared To Compromise

Between getting pre-application advice and applying we had a visit from a planning enforcement officer. We showed him around our woods and when we got to the caravan which we had already moved to please our neighbours. He said that the planning authorities prefer all signs of habitation to be together in one place rather than scattered across the site. We had no real reason to have that caravan there so after he left we winched it back out of the woods, moved it down the road, back into the other side of the woods and into the clearing that we live in. It was a bit of a hassle but it’s previous position wasn’t important and it showed a willingness to compromise. This was a good step in building up a relationship with our planning officers.

Be Prepared For A Struggle But Don’t Start A Fight

It is your planning officers job to scrutinise your application. They will not just say that they think it is entirely reasonable and start coming up with extra reasons why you should be successful. They will start coming up with reasons why you should be unsuccessful. Don’t take this personally. They almost definitely don’t care if you get permission or not. They just have to tick various boxes before they tick the yes box or the no box. If they don’t give you permission and you either get it on appeal or just move off there is little or no comeback for them. If they grant you permission without due diligence and you turn your site into an eyesore, hold raves and cause mayhem or close down the business that was the basis for your application and just use planning rules for property speculation they will get no end of grief. They will therefore want to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s before granting you permission. They will come up with objections that sound stupid, antagonistic and unreasonable even if they have a mind to decide in your favour so that they can be seen to have been thorough in their approach. They are used to and may anticipate conflict and their interpersonal skills may not be great so this may cause them to sound aggressive. The best thing that you can do is to stay calm. Even if your planning officer does turn out to be a small-minded, fascist bigot who hates people with long hair/dreads/tattoos/imagination or whatever, you will not help the situation by shouting at them. Probably they don’t hate you they are just completely baffled by you. They are the sort of people who like a nice comfortable, steady job with the benefits of job security, sick pay and a pension. The idea that anyone would want to live in a caravan, a yurt or a bender in the woods or on a bit of land and set up some project which could go entirely wrong is completely outside their realm of understanding. Be kind to them it is not their fault, they have just grown up that way.

Don’t Bother With Loopholes And Scams

This is not to say that you shouldn’t use every bit of the law to your benefit. Read it thoroughly, learn it and use it. However, we have heard of a lot of “clever” loopholes that may well help you to achieve a small victory in the short term, but your planning officer will probably be aware of them too. Using loopholes is likely to antagonise your planning officer, persuade them that you are a property speculator and ruin any chances that you have of a productive long term relationship. If you know that you only ever need planning permission once, you will never apply for anything again and the loophole will definitely get you the permission that you require, then there is an argument for using it. Otherwise it may well cost you more than it gains you. If you get to live on your land for 5 years whilst slowly building a barn but after 5 years you have the full force of your planning authority against you, you may wish you had not bothered. Loopholes and scams will also reduce your standing in the local community and therefore your local support.

Get Support From Wherever You Can

As well as support from your neighbours and the local community, there are numerous other areas that you can get support from. If you are producing a product, canvas support from the shops that sell it or the people that use it. Shops are particularly good because they represent the local economy. If you have worked with your local Wildlife Trust, ask if they are prepared to support you. Any organisation that is a specialist in your activities such as woodland trust or volunteer groups, local or national will add weight.

Try Not To Be On A National Park Or An AONB, But If You Are, Work With Them

AONB’s and National Parks add a whole extra load of bureaucracy to what already promises to be a mega-fest of bureaucracy. If you are looking for land and you see a lovely place on a national park, do be aware that there are issues attached. However, you can work with either of these organisations. They will have a whole load of policy on how they want the area to be managed and targets to achieve. If you read this, you may well find that your activities fit in with their targets. They may be concerned about the amount of neglected woodland, the demise of wildflower meadows and the lack of opportunities for traditional crafts. Most AONBs and national parks want a thriving economy that fits in with landscape and environmental protection. They may well have schemes that you can get involved in regarding habitat protection and education. Even if they have a policy of not supporting planning applications, if you are seen to be working with them it will help your case. You should then state all of their policies which your actions support in your planning application.

Do Not Wait For The Application To Be Decided Before Moving On

Your planning application is going to to be complex and it is unlikely to be decided quickly. If you are already on the land, you can use this time to set up you project so that your case just gets stronger. If you have not moved on your case is theoretical and easier to dismiss. When we first applied for temporary permission to live on our land we had not started to make charcoal. Our planning officer questioned the viability of the business based on us not having any outlets for our charcoal. By the time the wheels of bureaucracy had slowly turned and it was time to make the decision, we had outlets, marketing materials and the beginnings of a website. The planners may delay the case and hope you give up, whether or not you have moved on. Small businesses fail a lot in the early years and people who think that it’s a great idea to live on some land in the summer do sometimes change their mind in those cold winter months. Your planning officer doesn’t want to do a whole load of paperwork just to find out that you’ve changed your mind.

N.B. We put our application in well after moving on but that was in 2010. The Localism Act 2011 means that you can not now put in a retrospective application if an enforcement notice has already been served on the land in relation to the activities that you are applying for. In light of this it may be better to put in the application as you move on. Once the application is in the planning authority cannot issue an enforcement notice.

Don’t Feed The Parasites

We were told when we started to look into planning permission to live on our land that we would need a planning consultant to have any chance of getting it. During the process, many people suggested planning consultants that we could use. Mainly these were their friends who although not short of money, wanted some of ours. You do not need to have any qualifications to call yourself a “planning consultant”. There are lots of people who would like to take advantage of your situation and take from you money that would be better spent on setting up your project. Do not give them any money it only encourages them. Some planning consultants used to work for the council and have ongoing relationships with the planning officers. That would help if they were truly on your side, but they don’t have an ongoing relationship with you. You are just a source of income to them. They will go through the motions all the way up to the High Court if you keep paying them, without caring if you win or lose. Some are “professionals” with big offices who will charge you an absolute fortune to present your case in a very posh binder. They will think that you are clearly quite mad wanting to live a low-impact lifestyle and then not being surprised when you eventually lose, because they never got it in the first place. Some planning consultants have also been through the process to set up their own project and had a battle on the way. They’ve learnt to hate planning officers and now want to pick a fight with them using your money and acting on your behalf. You may be lucky and get a good planning consultant who is on your side and is looking for the best way to get the result you want with the least possible agro. Even so you are unlikely to be able to afford to pay them for as many hours as you would put into researching the case yourself and more importantly you will not understand the details of your case. As part of the process, you will almost definitely have difficult conversations with your planning officer. During these conversations you want to know your case inside out. If you have done the research yourself then you will. If someone else has done that research you won’t. There is also an advantage to dealing with being the point of contact yourself in that you can then build up a relationship with your planning officer. If you are genuine in your intentions you are more likely to be able to put this across to your planning officer if you communicate directly with them rather than through an intermediary.

Keep A Tidy Site

Because one of the big concerns that people have with new developments in the countryside is visual impact, it is important to keep your site tidy. This is especially true of the most visible areas such as the roadside and gateways. A small amount of time spent picking up the rubbish that has been thrown from passing cars onto your road frontage will be noted by your neighbours and will go a long way to improving peoples opinion of you locally. If you have overgrown hedges that are starting to obstruct the road, the parish council may well ask you to cut them back. If you cut them back before you are asked, that will be appreciated. The important resources that you have reclaimed and bought on to your site may well just look like tat to other people. Stacking things into neat piles out of the way can make the difference between them looking like something waiting to be used and something that has been dumped. If a planning officer, a parish councillor or one of your neighbours visits your site, the tidier it looks the better.

We Hope It Goes Well For You

Planning is a game of law and politics and this is an approach that worked for us. Others will read it and disagree. It involves a certain level of compromise and some people aren’t up for that which is fair enough. There are times when you can’t compromise. We were asked to put in an application for change of use from forestry to industrial use for the area of our land that the charcoal kiln is on. We thought that saying that charcoal production is an industrial land use would set a precedent that we were not prepared to be part of. As we had already compromised on smaller stuff like the position of our second caravan, this was easier for our planning officer to accept. This approach also involves a certain level of diplomacy and biting your tongue which is not everyones strong point. It is of course impossible to run a double-blind trial to test how well this philosophy works. It may have been that if we had just put in an application and kept to ourselves we would have got it anyway, but this philosophy makes sense to us. You have to look at your situation, your philosophy and your strengths and weaknesses and decide what approach is best for you. We hope that it is helpful to others who are trying to set up a low-impact lifestyle in the countryside. Please do pass it on to anyone whom you think it may help.