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For years, I decided thousands of planning applications. Here are the secrets to navigating the planning maze and build a dream extension (by Martin Gaine).

For the past year we have spent long days and nights cooped up, staring at the same four walls and dreaming of knocking some of them down. Homeowners have realised that they have too few rooms, or that they are too small, awkward, too dark or poorly connected to the rest of the house.

Some people have reacted by selling up and moving, while others are staying put and extending. Councils are receiving record numbers of planning applications: in the first three months of this year, there were 18pc more lodged compared to the same period in 2020, pre-pandemic.

I worked as a case officer in local councils for many years, deciding thousands of householder planning applications. For the past few years I have been a planning consultant, helping homeowners and small developers make the most of their homes.

Lots of clients ask me: “What’s the maximum I can build?” Size matters, but it is the wrong place to start. Here are my top five tips to navigate the planning maze and build a dream extension.

Think carefully about what you really need

Take a long, hard look at your house and think about what you are trying to achieve. Walk from room to room, reminding yourself how big they are, how often and in what ways they are used, and how well they connect to each other. Think about how you and your family live in your home, and how you would like to live in it.

Don’t assume that it is best achieved by building a big extension. Perhaps you have enough space already, but it is not well configured.

When James Smith, who runs architecture firm Just Plans, set about extending his own home in Sussex, he opted for a smaller design.

“It was much less expensive, much more family-friendly, and there was more sense of space, more light; it’s our favourite place to be,” he said. Now, the family have a sun trap patio with larger bifold doors and better garden views than they would have with their original, larger design.

Building his own extension gave him a new vision of his work, he added. “I am regularly telling homeowners to de-clutter and build a shed or otherwise explore smart storage solutions. It doesn’t matter how large the extension is if your house is still full of clutter – but that’s easier said than done.”

Hire a good architect

Architects can save you money by finding ways to optimise your space in the most cost-effective way. The biggest mistake people make when extending their home is this very early step: they spend too little time choosing the right architect for their project, or they try to save money by hiring the cheapest one they can find. The result is that a poor design leads to a planning refusal or, worse, ugly extensions that disfigure a home and reduce its value.

The best architects for small-scale developments are local. They are likely to have a good understanding of the area and the people and properties in it. If a planning application is needed, they should understand local council policies and have a relationship with the local planners.

To find the designers who are active in your area, navigate to your local council’s website, click on “planning applications”, and use the search function to bring up a list of all applications decided in the last month.

Take some time to work through the applications that are similar to yours. You may notice that a small number of practices appear again and again – this is your shortlist. Meet the architects and choose the one who seems to understand what you are trying to achieve, makes helpful and creative suggestions, and has a good idea of how any planning application you need to submit will be received by the local planners.

Use your permitted development rights

These allow you to extend without needing full planning permission. You can usually add a rear dormer roof extension to provide a couple of extra bedrooms, or build a ground floor rear extension to a depth of up to 8m. Not all houses have PD rights, and they are subject to various conditions, so always take professional advice.

Become familiar with other applications in your area

If a planning application is needed, your architect should apply for you – but you should not be a passive bystander. Familiarise yourself with other applications that have been submitted in your immediate area. On most streets, the houses are similar to each other and extensions granted permission at one are quite likely to be acceptable on another.

All councils maintain a list of applications on their website. When an application is decided, the council publishes the “officer’s report”, in which the case officer describes the site, lists the relevant planning policies and provides a full assessment, weighing up competing considerations. This is a priceless planning resource – it can give a real insight into how decisions are really made.

Charm your case officer

In planning, the case officer is king. They have the power, at the stroke of a pen, to bring your dreams crashing down. Applications should be decided objectively and in line with planning policies, but many of the issues are subjective and case officers have a lot of discretion.

It is a good idea to try and build a rapport with them. The problem is that they can be difficult to reach and reluctant to engage, for obvious reasons. However, they will usually venture out from the town hall to carry out a site visit. This is your opportunity to make an impression: invite them in, offer some tea and tell them why you need the extension.

There is no need for a heavy sales pitch, but don’t be afraid to ask the officer what they think of your proposal and what the outcome is likely to be. If the case officer confesses to reservations about your plans, this is your chance to head off any problems and talk through amendments.

Martin Gaine is a chartered town planner and author of How to Get Planning Permission – An Insider’s Secrets (Spinlove Books)

[Source:, 17 July 2021]

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